What is RA Training?
Training residential staff on how to monitor student alcohol-related behaviors and enforce campus alcohol policies can be a key component of a campus’s effective alcohol prevention efforts. Many first- and second-year students live in campus housing, and this same population is especially vulnerable to high-risk alcohol consumption. As a result, many campuses provide Resident Assistants (RAs) with annual trainings before the beginning of the academic year that include information about alcohol policies and procedures. Trainings usually include information about an institution’s basic rules and regulations, such as drug and alcohol policies, guest policies, and emergency evacuation procedures. RAs may also be taught certain skills, such as conflict-resolution, community building, and peer helping and referral.
When discussing alcohol and drug policies, RAs may be trained on enforcement and sanctioning procedures. They may also receive information about alcohol-related problems and behaviors, such as addiction, binge drinking and the signs of alcohol poisoning. RAs may be taught skills for approaching and referring a peer to get help for his or her alcohol-related problem.
On largely residential campuses where many students drink alcohol in their residence hall rooms, RA training can play a significant role in an institution’s enforcement of alcohol policies. As is the case with all campus staff, RAs must be trained to enforce alcohol policies in a consistent manner, without preferential treatment or turning a blind eye to violations, which sends conflicting messages to students and undermines the purpose of having such policies in place (“Developing Campus Policies and Enforcing Laws,” n.d.).
RA training programs have been demonstrated to impact student awareness and perceptions of alcohol-policy enforcement. For example, the University of Tennessee decided to enhance their Residence Hall Staff Training to focus on more consistent enforcement. The training had previously consisted of hall directors teaching RAs about how to care for intoxicated students, while the enhanced training focused on building RA and hall directors’ awareness of the importance of consistent enforcement. Specifically, it “emphasized that consistency of enforcement early in the year set a tone on campus and predicted better community outcomes throughout the year” and that “inconsistent enforcement during the fall semester led to more policy violations and lower satisfaction by HDs, RAs, and residents.” With this enhanced training, the university saw a dramatic increase in student awareness of alcohol policies and student perception of policy enforcement (“University of Tennessee: Safety, Environment, and Education (SEE) Center,” 2008).
Although RA training may yield initial surges in alcohol violations, RA training may lead to overall reductions in more serious alcohol-related violations as well as the occurrence of repeat offenses. When the University of Rhode Island ramped up their enforcement and trained RAs about new alcohol policies, the university saw a surge in simple alcohol violations, such as underage possession or consumption. At the same time, however, the university saw declines in compound violations of community standards involving alcohol, such as vandalism or assault. And almost all students who were cited (90%) were not cited a second time (Cohen & Rogers, 1997).
Finally, when implemented in conjunction with other environmental prevention strategies, RA training may significantly contribute to changes in alcohol-related behaviors. For example, when the University of Tennessee enhanced their Residence Hall staff training, they also launched a five-component social norms media campaign. The university saw a 35% decrease in heavy drinking and a 53% decrease in frequent heavy drinking after the first few years of these programs (“University of Tennessee: Safety, Environment, and Education (SEE) Center,” 2008).
Stanford University has also benefited from implementing a number of prevention strategies in conjunction with RA training. After seeing an uptick in ER admits involving hard alcohol, Stanford developed a new model for RAs to follow when assessing problematic situations. In addition, Stanford implemented some targeted education around the particular risks of hard alcohol and continued to provide online alcohol education. With all of these efforts in place, Stanford witnessed a decrease in ER transports due to alcohol use by more than fifty percent (R. Castro, personal communication, February 25, 2009).
Issues and considerations
When implementing RA training, messaging must be consistent across all residential housing. It is important that all RAs take student policy violations seriously and do not give preferential treatment. The sooner RAs establish precedence for enforcement, the more likely it will be that students will take their roles seriously and abide by policy.
It is also essential that RAs understand their limitations when dealing with students with alcohol-related problems, such as addiction, depression, or even alcohol-related aggression. RAs must be given the proper resources and tools for getting help when a situation is out of control or requires assistance beyond their skill-level.
There are also a number of prevention initiatives RAs can facilitate in order to deter students from engaging in high-risk behavior. RAs may organize house-wide alcohol-free activities, such as trips to the movies, dinner, or recreational sports. RAs can use their bulletin boards to advertise such events, and also provide students with educational information about alcohol, such as the signs of an overdose or information about blood alcohol concentration. RAs can also display the campus’s alcohol policies in their residence hall.
Castro, R., personal communication. February 25, 2009.
Cohen, F., & Rogers, D. (1997). Effects of alcohol policy change. Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education, 42(2), 69. Retrieved April 6, 2009, from Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection database.
Developing Campus Policies and Enforcing Laws (n.d). The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention.
University of Tennessee: Safety, Environment, and Education (SEE) Center (2008). The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention.