Sober Host Policy Too Ambiguous: A Call for Discussion and Equal Protection

Since its inception in 2015, the sober host policy and process at the University of Redlands has gained attention and coverage for its attempt to monitor safety and rowdiness at school parties. As a response to student concerns and national events in years past, the most recent sober host policy is the product of a detailed revision of a previous policy, in an effort to satisfy the safety of the student population.


The sober host system essentially functions on the premise of keeping partygoers safe by placing the responsibility in the hands of other students. The lengths and practices in which that responsibility extends, however, is what begins to create concern.


“If there is any kind of situation i.e. violence between drunk people, someone trying to push themselves onto someone who doesn’t want it, it is their responsibility to notice and defuse the situation in the most beneficial way,” explains Taylor Young, University of Redlands junior and active Greek Life member. “This could mean calling P-Safe.”


This policy is relatively new, as the University is still making developments to improve since 2015.


“There have been a few spelling or grammatical errors fixed as well as the addition of the Pilot Incentive Program, a result of the Party Safety Committee who evaluate the effectiveness of the policy,” Christy Clinton, Director of Greek Life notes. “In the Spring of 2016, the [Party Safety] committee proposed an additional voluntary incentive pilot for organizations who were hosting events responsibly. Organizations with the incentive would participate in a new educational effort (now called Party Like a Bulldog) for incoming students, co-host the Homecoming Party on Fraternity Row, host a successful Open Party and have no ‘points’ on their license. As a result, organizations would need to provide less sober hosts for events.”


Despite the fact that it will more than likely be required to undergo sober host training upon joining Greek Life, the process itself is still “technically” voluntary.


“For every event we will ask for sober host volunteers and how big the event is will determine the amount of sober hosts required,” explains Young. “We do like to make sure that the same few people aren’t sober hosting all the time, however.”


Considering 85 percent of a student organization has to be sober host trained in order to receive a party license, and students within that particular organization attempt to circulate the responsibility among members fairly, the odds of being a sober host upon joining these organizations are extremely high.


That being said, it is not required to join Greek Life, to attend on campus parties, or to consume alcohol while attending the University of Redlands. In those ways, the process of becoming a sober host is even more voluntary. After all, the University makes a point to assert that partying is, indeed, a privilege, and not a right.


Yet, arguably all activities operate this way; no club or extracurricular is required, but we, as students, consciously accept the organization’s individual rules and obligations regardless, because they socially, culturally, and otherwise enhance our experience at the university. However, what is particularly concerning about the specific rules outlined in the sober host policy is that there are more serious implications — the potential to be held legally liable for the life of a peer. Sober host trained or not, there is an indisputable pressure of having someone else’s life in your hands.


“The University provides regulations, training, and support to student leaders in the planning and management of parties and events,” the University of Redlands party policy states. “In addition, the University makes no attempt to shield individuals or organizations from legal consequences that result from any violations of federal, state, or local laws associated with events.”


It’s true that the policy does not explicitly state that all liability falls on students, but it likewise does not explicitly state that it falls on the university or the administration either. The notion that I may held legally liable, but anyone else could be too, isn’t exactly comforting.


The current standard is ambiguous; it is unreasonable for the university to attempt to protect students who stray too far from the policy and explicitly break boundaries. Conversely, it is arguably just as unreasonable to expect students not to feel comfortable with the possibility of being held responsible for the actions of others. While that hypothetical may rarely occur, it certainly isn’t an impossible reality for anyone who serves as a sober host. The thought of that alone is enough to make students uneasy. If students aren’t feeling hesitant about their sober host obligations already, perhaps they should look more closely into the possible implications outlined in the policies.


The University of Redlands party policy leaves a multitude of unanswered questions. In what scenarios are sober hosts more responsible than the university? What exactly does it mean for students if the policy specifies them as liable, but not the university? What potential protections can be put into place, if any, to ensure that sober hosts feel legally secure?


Sober hosts are students as well, and their right to safety — as well as feeling safe, protected, and supported within their social and academic environment — should be emphasized as much a partygoer. Because the entire Greek Life party system relies on the existence of sober hosts, it is important that students feel they can participate in that process comfortably enough to volunteer — otherwise, there is no sober host system.


In other words: if the standards are ambiguous, they need to be further defined. A policy that does not explicitly protect sober hosts from errors through no fault of their own isn’t a policy that protects all students. There is more than ample room for discussion on how this policy adversely affects the young adults it is trying to help, meaning there is a definite need to fill those gaps and concerns — hopefully in favor of prioritizing the safety of both partygoers and sober hosts equally.


photo contributed by Elaine Liu