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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Letter to the Editor: Continuing town hall

Grinnell Community,


I would first like to thank Ope, Chinyere, and everyone who collaborated to make the town hall meetings on Sept. 24 a success; I appreciate your leadership. Over the past five years, I have attended a number of campus dialogues and last week’s were by far the most civil and productive. The large turnout of students, staff and faculty was also heartening. I am writing with a few further reflections on student questions from these sessions—things I wish I would have thought to share at the time. I am thankful that the S&B has given me this opportunity.

Concerning mental health: A student asked what we know about Grinnell students’ mental health in general, and how it compares to other institutions. I wish I had shared: according to the National College Health Assessment survey conducted in Spring 2012, 37 percent of our students self-reported having felt so depressed it was difficult to function sometime in the previous 12 months. Consider this in terms of actual people: that is almost 600 of our students. That is a staggering number, and something that is worth discussing further as a community, in a variety of contexts. (The national comparison group is 31.6 percent, which I find heartbreaking as well.)

When Nicole Cueno ’02 was on campus as part of last month’s Rosenfield Title IX Symposium, she bravely gave a talk on her experiences suffering from an eating disorder at Grinnell and beyond. Seventy-five students and staff members crowded into the Whale Room to hear her story. This underscores the magnitude of interest in openly discussing and de-stigmatizing mental health issues on our campus.

Concerning alcohol: At both sessions, students asked if a goal was to eliminate alcohol use on campus. I am not sure what gives this impression. I am optimistic that the vast majority of students understand that we believe in a harm reduction approach to alcohol use on campus. Harm reduction means empowering our students with the knowledge and skills to reduce the harms associated with alcohol use, including our year’s average 15 percent of students who physically injure themselves while drinking, 12 percent who fail to use protection when having sex while intoxicated, and last year’s five (or more) students who were transported to the hospital with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .30 or greater, a level that carries a significant risk of death. According to the sexual respect survey conducted last spring, a significant majority of attempted or completed sexual assault incidents occurred when one or both partners self-reported being moderately or severely intoxicated. Additionally, as Grinnell College students are subject to the laws of Iowa, another potential harm is getting cited or arrested for alcohol-related reasons.

If, as an institution, our goal was eliminating all student drinking (hint: it’s not), I can’t imagine that I would be able to use College money and resources to hand out over 400 BAC cards each year—including the 100+ the Hall Wellness Coordinators hand out to first-years at NSO. Nor would a committee of over 25 faculty, staff and students, in conjunction with the Grinnell Police Department, have spent an hour of their time last Thursday discussing best practices for the safe and legal distribution of nine college-approved kegs of beer at the upcoming 10/10 event. Personally, I could not see myself doing this work at a college that did not have a harm reduction philosophy concerning alcohol use.

I would like to reiterate that anyone who is concerned about alcohol and other drugs on campus is invited to attend Harm Reduction Committee meetings—check the campus calendar or email me directly. We have been transparent, open to all and co-chaired by a student since our creation in the fall of 2008, and soon you will be able to see what we’re up to on our website, including all of the HRC year-end reports. I am proud of the work we have all done the last five years and look forward to continued collaboration in making our campus a more enjoyable and less risky environment for all of our students.

Last Tuesday we started (or renewed) several important and related discussions, which I hope will continue in a robust, thoughtful and productive manner.

Thanks to all,

Jen Jacobsen ’95

P.S. At the evening town hall, an important conversation worth continuing was started about the perceived need to be drunk before engaging in sexual activity. Talking about sex and discussing boundaries and consent can be uncomfortable and awkward. It would be lying to say it magically gets easier in your 20s and beyond. You might consider that interviewing for a job also can be uncomfortable and awkward, and I imagine that that most of you plan to have a pretty low BAC for that. Otherwise the CLS should consider holding its mock interviews at Lonnski’s . . .

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