SMU implements reforms two years after three students died of overdoses
By LORI STAHL / The Dallas Morning News
Two years ago this month was the start of a troubled time at Southern Methodist University, a period between December exams and summer break when three students died of alcohol or drug overdoses.
Since then, a university task force spent six months soul-searching and concluded that the campus needed a widespread "culture shift" to create a more intellectual atmosphere.
This semester, SMU rolled out a massive 36-point reform plan aimed at making the shift. They also arrested a student on drug charges and interviewed dozens of students at his fraternity house.
Whether the new approach will have the desired effect on student behavior is still an open question. But SMU officials say the changes are necessary if the university wants a credible shot at becoming a top-tier college.
"We had lots of good things going on in drug and alcohol awareness," said Lori White, SMU's vice president for student affairs. "But the unfortunate tragedy of having three students die in one year really caused us to look at SMU and our culture and see if there were some additional things we could be doing."
The push comes as SMU embarks on a $750 million fundraising drive. The effort, launched in September, is the largest capital campaign in SMU history.
Meanwhile, the campus will have increased visibility starting next month when President George W. Bush moves back to Dallas. The campus is the site of a planned presidential complex that includes a library, museum and institute.
Already, students appear to be embracing one of the major changes this semester. SMU now offers "medical amnesty" and "good Samaritan" protection to those students who call for emergency help when they or their friends are drunk or high. In the past, students who sought emergency help faced the prospect of discipline for substance abuse.
So far this semester, 12 students have been taken to a hospital because of a drug or alcohol overdose. SMU officials said they do not know how many of those were prompted by calls from students.
Parents raise questions
It's impossible to know whether Jacob Stiles would still be alive had SMU had a good Samaritan or medical amnesty policy two years ago. Despite the university's latest steps, his parents believe SMU has yet to confront some of the problems that led to the student deaths.
In December 2006, the sophomore economics major was found in his room in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house. He died of what authorities later determined was a fatal combination of alcohol, cocaine and the prescription drug fentanyl, a pain killer that is sometimes used for cancer patients.
His parents have waged a seemingly unsuccessful campaign to get SMU police to file criminal charges against those suspected of dealing drugs to their son.
"We don't blame SMU for the death of our son, but they have solid leads that were not followed up on," Jake's father, Tom Stiles, said in a recent interview. "I'm done dealing with them."
As far back as June 2007, the Stiles family questioned whether SMU made a sincere attempt to investigate leads from their son's cellphone that they say point to a suspect. Text messages in the phone indicate that one of Jake's fraternity brothers provided him with drugs the night before he died, Tom Stiles said more than a year ago. Police returned the phone to the Stiles family after inspecting it.
About a year later, several high-ranking SMU officials met with the Stiles family. It was at this meeting that SMU officials say they got "new information" from the family. Since then, officials say, SMU police have interviewed 21 people and attempted to talk to 10 more.
"Those others have refused to be interviewed, but SMU will continue attempts to speak with them as well as follow other leads," said Patti LaSalle, a spokeswoman for the university.
SMU Police Chief Rick Shafer said police thought they had retrieved all the information when they inspected the phone.
"I'm not certain how they come about developing these additional text messages," Chief Shafer said. "They provided us some additional text messages that we never had, which was some good information about what was going on that morning. That's why we re-looked at some things."
As recently as September, campus police asked the Texas Rangers to consult on new leads, Chief Shafer said.
A spokeswoman for the Texas Rangers said that someone with the agency talked to SMU police but that the Rangers did not do their own investigation.
Sending a message
Meanwhile, there are signs that top administrators are waging more visible interrogations this year.
Last month, campus police issued an arrest warrant for a student after they smelled marijuana coming from a room in a fraternity house. The student now faces felony charges.
The student, who was reached via e-mail, referred questions to his lawyer. The attorney did not return a phone call.
SMU police and administrators descended on the fraternity house and quizzed dozens of students, one at a time, to see what they knew about drug use. Fifty-five students were questioned, officials said.
"While we hadn't planned for any of these incidents to occur, I think it has reinforced that we will act quickly and decisively when these things are brought to our attention," Dr. White said.
For now, university officials say they are confident that the new reform plan will be a major turning point in addressing factors that put SMU students at risk of substance abuse.
Students who attend SMU have more money and fewer outside jobs to occupy their free time than their peers at comparable schools, the task force found. In addition, the campus has few gathering places or activities to compete with off-campus parties.
Not surprisingly, some of the changes have brought mixed reactions from students.
Some have said officials should work harder to investigate drug dealing on campus, suggesting the approach taken by San Diego State University last year, when federal agents conducted an undercover drug sting that netted dozens of arrests, including many students.
Senior Joseph Goddard said the medical amnesty plan for students who call for emergency help is "long overdue." But some of the new policies, such as requiring students to get advance permission for parties, are unrealistic.
"They implemented a lot of new stuff this year that a lot of people are upset about," he said.
Task force ideas
A task force on Substance Abuse Prevention implemented 36 changes to create a "culture shift" at Southern Methodist University. The panel included students, faculty, administrators and a trustee. Here are some of the task force's ideas put into place this semester:
•Medical amnesty/good Samaritan policy
Students who seek medical assistance for themselves or others when they are drunk or high on drugs are no longer subject to the discipline process at SMU in most cases.
Parents are notified the first time a student is cited for drug or alcohol violations. In the past, parents were notified only after a student was put on probation.
•Social event registration
Student organizations now register most on-campus and off-campus events through the university's Office of Student Life.
The university has expanded the hours, services and activities of the Hughes-Trigg Student Center, the Dedman Center for Lifetime Sports and the Health Center.
•Caring Community Connections program
SMU now uses an online process for gathering information about students who show signs of extreme stress.
SOURCE: Southern Methodist University
Timeline of events
Nov. 18, 2006: An SMU sophomore overdoses on drugs and alcohol while at a hotel in Galveston for a Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity weekend. When police arrive, he is unconscious. He is hospitalized and recovers.
Dec. 2, 2006: The surviving student's roommate, Jacob Stiles, is found dead of an overdose in the SAE fraternity house. The Dallas County Medical Examiner finds cocaine, alcohol and a synthetic opiate, fentanyl, in Mr. Stiles' system.
May 2, 2007: First-year student Jordan Crist, 19, is found unresponsive in a dorm room on campus and taken to Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas where he is pronounced dead. Authorities find he died from alcohol poisoning and had five times the legal driving limit in his system.
May 14, 2007: Meaghan Bosch, a 21-year-old senior from McKinney, is found dead near a construction site near Waco. She died from an accidental overdose of cocaine, methamphetamine and oxycodone, an addictive painkiller.
June 11, 2007: SMU President R. Gerald Turner announces that he's creating a Task Force on Substance Abuse Prevention.
September 2007: One week into the fall semester, six SMU students are rushed to the hospital for drug and alcohol overdoses, according to a report in the student newspaper the Daily Campus.
Feb. 1, 2008: The substance abuse task force releases its report, containing a long list of recommendations and demanding a "culture change" at the university.
Spring break 2008: Guests at a Mexican resort contact SMU about the "abusive" behavior of vacationing SMU students, including fighting, swearing and refusing requests to quiet down their all-night partying.
April 5, 2008: The Phi Delta Theta fraternity holds a charity fundraiser, which reportedly draws 1,200 people to the Hotel Intercontinental Dallas. A hotel guest writes a letter to SMU, reporting that intoxicated students urinated in the hallways, taunted hotel guests and screamed until 5 a.m.
April 22, 2008: SMU's Vice President for Student Affairs Lori White takes out a full-page ad in the campus newspaper to upbraid students. "The university is appalled that any SMU student would conduct himself or herself in a manner that would result in the letters I received," she wrote.
Fall 2008: New policies recommended by the task force begin to take effect on campus.
November 2008: SMU Police, working with other local law enforcement agencies, issue an arrest warrant for an SMU junior who faces felony drug charges for illegal substances seized in his room at a fraternity house.
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