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Volume 1, Number 1, Fall 1999 - Winter 2000

Study Abroad Programs: No Respite From the Drug Free Schools and Campuses Act

by Joel C. Epstein, Associate Director & Senior Attorney
Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention
Education Development Center, Inc.
55 Chapel Street Newton, MA 02458-1060
Phone: (617) 618-2393
Fax: (617) 928-1537

When in Rome... Not so, at least as far as drinking and illicit drug use go for participants in international study abroad programs. Under the Drug Free Schools and Campuses Act (DFSCA), as a condition of receiving federal funds and other forms of financial assistance U.S. schools must certify that they have adopted and implemented a program to prevent the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs by students, faculty, and staff. What is more, the regulations are portable, covering international study abroad programs as well as domestic studies.

So what is a school to do, particularly where local law and customs may clash with the DFSCA? Before complete panic sets in let us remember all of the other good reasons to make sure your program is in compliance with the regulations. If effective risk management practices are being followed and you have already thought through the potential exposure your school may face in sending students abroad, you may already be in compliance with the regulations. Minimum compliance is quite reasonable really. DFSCA requires the distribution in writing to all students, faculty, and staff a policy which describes standards of conduct that "clearly prohibit, at a minimum, the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs and alcohol on its property or as part of its activities." The policy must also include:

  • a description of the applicable legal sanctions under federal, state, and local laws for unlawful possession or distribution of drugs and alcohol;
  • a description of the health risks associated with the use of illicit drugs and abuse of alcohol;
  • a description of any drug and alcohol treatment or counseling programs that are available; and,
  • a clear statement that the school will impose disciplinary sanctions on offenders for violation of the standards of conduct and a description of those sanctions, up to and including expulsion or termination and referral for prosecution.

That is it. So why do schools have such a difficult time accepting the "burden" the regulations place on them? Proper preparation for any study abroad program takes time. If conscientious about the process, students and staff may spend months or more preparing, familiarizing themselves with what may be new customs and laws, as well as language and culture. For students in domestic study programs, DFSCA and its requirements are practically engrained after a semester, even if they do not know the regulations by their proper name.

Schools with international study abroad programs can and should think beyond the narrow question, should we serve wine or beer at program functions. Instead they should be thinking about the myriad risks intoxicated or stoned students living in a strange foreign city pose to themselves and others. As a recent article in The Baltimore Sun reported, binge drinking by college students is indeed common all over the world. In Britain, where going to a pub is a favorite leisure-time activity among adults, drinking dominates the on-campus social scene. In Russia, drinking always has been such a natural part of the culture that for hundreds of years police officers gently guided drunk students home on St. Tatyana's Day, a day dedicated to students.

With this the reality, instead of minimal compliance with DFSCA, schools may indeed want to do more. With drinking already a part of the culture and lifestyle of many countries, is it really necessary to serve alcohol at foreign study abroad functions as well? Students will not be driving home afterwards, as they might in the U.S., but the related risks posed by drinking and intoxication are as present in foreign study programs as they are on domestic campuses. Heightened levels of interpersonal violence, including sexual assault, is the most common unwanted occurrence linked to drinking. And while drinking is perhaps the most common problem faced by foreign and domestic study programs, student drinking barely holds a candle to the problems that may result from student illicit drug use while abroad. In many countries the fact that illicit drug use is customary often does not diminish the country's enthusiasm for what we may view as draconian sanctions for illicit use. In making students and staff aware of your school‘s drug and alcohol policy, you will be helping heighten the program participant's appreciation of the risks associated with their violation of the policy. Equally important is a message about the negative health and academic performance consequences of heavy drinking or drug use.

Given the often unfamiliar environment into which foreign study students are being propelled they need all the help we can offer. The best message we can send is one that promotes an alternative, healthful vision of work and study. A focus on the "need" to serve alcohol at school functions is indeed an exaggeration of the importance of the drinking ritual to the culture of the country in which the program is being offered.

The goal of a foreign study abroad program's prevention policies should be to establish and maintain an environment that will discourage illicit student drinking and drug use. If effectively implemented and enforced, these measures will contribute to a safer environment, one that not only reduces the program's exposure to possible lawsuits by students injured through their own or fellow student intoxication, but also enhances the program's ability to accomplish its educational mission.

Many college officials once hesitated to articulate clear alcohol and other drug policies on the assumption that these policies, because they could not be perfectly enforced, would contribute to the institution's liability in a court of law. But foreign study programs, like their parent colleges and universities have an educational and ethical responsibility, as well as a legal responsibility, to act forcefully to promote a foreign study environment free from alcohol and other drug problems. Foreign study programs can and should take reasonable protective measures to guard against foreseeable hazards and risks in the study abroad context.

Some recommended best practices for foreign study programs include:

  • getting students involved as peer educators, policy decision makers, and alcohol-free event planners.
  • avoiding the preachy approach; allow students to make choices.
  • informing students of the program's alcohol and other drug use policies and the consequences of violating the policies.
  • Providing social alternatives to drinking.
  • Making prevention part of a holistic approach using educational self-development and self-awareness activities.

According to prevention expert Alan Berkowitz, prevention strategies should be:


  • Involve students, staff, and faculty
  • Provide multiple exposures to prevention in a variety of settings from a variety of sources
  • Eliminate inconsistent messages


  • Provide exposure to the message over a period of time, rather than as a one-shot experience
  • Require active participation, rather than passive attendance


  • Tailor to specific groups
  • Focus on immediate negative consequences such as injury, sexually-transmitted diseases, and acquaintance rape, rather than the long-term health risks of drinking


  • Take advantage of the power of peer influence by using peer education
  • Integrate survey research (increases relevance)
  • Work on changing the immediate social environment
  • Provide training to students to help themselves (e.g., assertiveness training, goal setting)

Additionally, policies should be in writing in an easy-to-read format that cries out to students that this piece of paper, one of hundred they typically receive upon registering, is important to read and live by.

Foreign study programs seeking to revise their alcohol and other drug policies may also wish to contact the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, the nation's primary resource for assisting colleges and universities in developing, implementing, and evaluating programs and policies for alcohol and other drug prevention. The Center was established by the U.S. Department of Education in 1993 to provide training, technical assistance, and publications to the higher education community. Center staff are regularly contacted by schools seeking information on methods of addressing staff and student drug use, legal compliance, controlling interpersonal violence and alcohol and drug-related vandalism on campus, and school/Greek relations. The Center, located at Education Development Center, Inc., in Newton, Massachusetts, is accessible via the web at:

Most of the Higher Education Center's dozens of publications are available electronically in several formats for ease of use by those logging onto the website. The Center also offers technical assistance and training and the website has links to over 100 professional organizations and related prevention resources including the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, Inc. (NASPA), College Parents of America (CPA), the Core Institute, and the BACCHUS and GAMMA Peer Education Network.

While personal responsibility must be the standard for students in foreign study abroad programs, as "facilitators" of college and university students making the difficult transition to full adulthood, schools should do their best to educate students of the risks associated with alcohol and illicit drug use. Like domestic study programs, the college and university mission remains an educational one. Many students may be "legally" underage and still making that adjustment from living at home to independence. Add to that the challenge of adjusting to life and study in a foreign, perhaps unfamiliar land, and the potential risks multiply. Foreign study program administrators can make a difference by expressing their concern about and disapproval of underage drinking and dangerous alcohol consumption. Faculty and staff can also present positive role models through their own responsible use of alcohol, if they drink. In helping students steer clear of illegal drinking and drug use, foreign study programs will be helping them achieve what they are there for in the first place.

Joel C. Epstein, J.D., is associate director for local, state, regional, and national organization initiatives and senior attorney with the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention at Education Development Center, Inc., in Newton, Massachusetts. A frequent presenter on alcohol, drug, and violence prevention on college and university campuses, Mr. Epstein has written extensively on these topics. He also consults to colleges and universities on risk management, developing an alcohol and drug policy, and improving physical security. Mr. Epstein is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, and is admitted to practice law in California, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C.