FAYETTEVILLE -- A student's death the morning after being carried away from a fraternity house because of heavy drinking has been followed by a University of Arkansas, Fayetteville policy change making it easier for students to avoid school discipline when seeking medical help related to drug or alcohol use.
UA's top campus conduct official has not linked the policy change to any specific event, but rather said it came about after working with student government leaders on an expansion of an existing policy.
A policy put in place in 2014 now applies to calls for emergency medical care after drug use, among other changes aimed at encouraging students to get help when needed. The original policy applied only to alcohol intoxication, and UA students have pushed for drugs to be covered by the policy since at least 2017.
State law shields underage drinkers from criminal prosecution for alcohol possession if they call for emergency medical help or need it. The legal drinking age in Arkansas is 21. Another state law provides similar immunity, regardless of age, when medical help is sought after a drug overdose.
Kevin Kennedy Ryan, 20, died from alcohol and cocaine intoxication the day after St. Patrick's Day, according to a report from the Washington County coroner. Police reports describe Ryan as spending the previous day drinking at a Fayetteville restaurant and the Kappa Alpha fraternity house where he lived.
His death comes at a time of surging drug overdose fatalities nationwide. In addition, fraternity activities were temporarily suspended this fall at the University of Missouri, after a student's hospitalization from excessive drinking, and at the University of Kentucky, where a student died in October from suspected alcohol poisoning.
UA in April imposed probation on the Kappa Alpha fraternity after Ryan's March 18 death at an off-campus apartment. A UA disciplinary letter addressed to the fraternity described an unregistered event taking place a day earlier at the Kappa Alpha house.
"At this event, a member of your chapter consumed alcohol, was carried from the facility and transported to an off-campus residence and was later found deceased," states an April 16 letter from Rachel Eikenberry, director of the university's Office of Student Standards and Conduct.
The Washington County coroner's report cites a medical examiner as stating that Ryan died from "acute combined alcohol and cocaine intoxication." His death was ruled accidental.
There's no indication from police reports that students sought to avoid university punishment by calling Ryan's girlfriend to pick him up the night before he died.
One fraternity member said to police that he had been told Ryan was headed to a hospital upon being picked up, according to a Fayetteville police report.
No other students interviewed by police referred to efforts to seek medical attention for Ryan that night, at least according to police reports released under the state's public disclosure law.
Police reports say those at the apartment where Ryan spent the night called for medical help a few minutes before 7 a.m. upon discovering him to be unresponsive. Medics at about 7:10 a.m. notified the coroner's office of Ryan's death, according to the police reports.
The revised UA policy, now known as Student Conduct Amnesty for Alcohol and Other Drugs, states that those seeking help -- and those needing help -- are to receive an "alternative resolution" rather than formal discipline for drug or alcohol possession.
Eikenberry explained to UA's faculty senate last month what happens as part of the amnesty policy.
"Both the student that called and the student that needed medical attention will receive amnesty from disciplinary action, so they won't be placed on a disciplinary standing. We do still mandate that those individuals participate in some educational programming," Eikenberry said.
She made no mention of Ryan's death or of students hospitalized, noting that student leaders came forward to request changes.
"I think that the information was pretty staggering in terms of how desperately the need was for some changes and some outreach institutionally," Eikenberry told faculty members.
Julia Nall, a May graduate of UA and last year's student body president, said in a phone interview that a poll of students found a large majority uncomfortable with the idea of calling for medical help in cases of underage drinking. The poll was conducted by UA's Associated Student Government, Nall said.
UA's top student affairs official at the time, current interim Chancellor Charles Robinson, as well as the dean of students, Melissa Harwood-Rom -- now interim vice chancellor for student affairs -- seemed receptive to the idea of revising the existing medical attention policy during meetings early in the 2020-21 academic year, Nall said.
Before the policy update took effect in August, UA's old policy stated that it "does not rule out the imposition of disciplinary action."
Student leaders wanted amnesty for students, similar to what state law provides in cases of drug overdoses, Nall said.
The new UA policy states that alternative resolutions are to generally be implemented "[W]henever a student seeks out on their own behalf or assists another student in obtaining bona fide emergency medical attention in connection with alcohol or drug use."
The policy has also been broadened so witnesses providing information related to "serious" conduct-policy violations may avoid formal discipline for "minor alcohol or drug related violations."
Eikenberry told faculty members that another change is that students will be considered for amnesty even if they do not specifically apply for it, unlike under the old policy. Students can still apply for amnesty consideration under the new policy.
As with the previous policy, it applies only to university discipline, so the University of Arkansas Police Department does not fall under the policy. The protocol is also not meant for students who "repeatedly violate" UA's student conduct code, the policy states.
The new "protocol" -- the term preferred by the university, rather than "policy" -- applies only to students.
But when a student organization is "hosting/housing an event where medical attention is sought for an overdosing guest or member, the organization's willingness to seek prompt medical attention" may be "a mitigating factor" when it comes to determining any sanction, the policy states. The previous policy used similar language.
After Ryan's death, a banner hung outside the red-brick Kappa Alpha house in his memory.
Obituary information for Ryan, from Kansas City, Mo., described him as a sophomore studying business. Survivors include a twin brother, Nicholas, also a UA student.
"Kevin's radiant smile and genuine love for his family and friends will be missed by everyone who knew him," stated the obituary, which also referred to his fraternity ties.
Tommy Ryan, Kevin's father, did not respond to phone messages seeking comment for this article.
"Our chapter and members continue to honor the memory and remember the loss of our brother, and will for the rest of our lives," Ben Turner, the vice president of UA's Kappa Alpha chapter, said in an emailed statement. "Future policy changes at the university should always take into account student health and safety and support those who help others."
A Fayetteville police report includes a description of fraternity house security video of Ryan just a few minutes before midnight on St. Patrick's Day, noting that he "appears to be unconscious."
The report continues: "At 11:42 p.m., the group is seen helping Kevin out of the elevator and outside to a back parking lot."
Then, two students "have to carry Kevin by his arms and legs down a set of stairs to a waiting vehicle," the report states.
A police report describes interviews with fraternity members: "They indicated it was not uncommon for Kevin to be heavily intoxicated on a weekly basis. There were also several mentions of narcotics such as marijuana and cocaine; however, no one stated they saw Kevin using any drugs the night before."
As stated in police and university disciplinary records, the Kappa Alpha fraternity had been hosting a party that was not registered with UA officials.
Records released by the Fayetteville Police Department regarding Ryan's death show no indication of hazing, and discipline for the Kappa Alpha fraternity resulted from failing "to appropriately register social functions," according to the disciplinary letter from Eikenberry.
Following Ryan's death, another UA fraternity also was disciplined after someone needed medical help following alcohol use.
A September disciplinary letter addressed to the Kappa Sigma fraternity described an unauthorized summer event held by the group in which "a minor was medically transported due to injury-related to alcohol use."
Scott Flanagin, a UA spokesman, in an email declined to answer questions about the condition of the person needing medical help.
"It would not be appropriate to discuss situations involving individual students. Sanctions involving Kappa Sigma were related to having an unregistered function, not alcohol violations," Flanagin said.
The Kappa Sigma fraternity chapter received a formal warning, as well as sanctions of a $500 "conduct assessment" and 15 hours of community service. The fraternity chapter was placed on probation extending into April, and chapter members were given until Jan. 7 to complete an online course "designed to reduce the harmful consumption of alcohol and associated problems among students."
During the first year of the pandemic, many social activities were curtailed by the university as part of efforts to stop the spread of covid-19. Since this past summer, several other fraternities have been sanctioned, with some disciplinary letters referring to alcohol-related violations.
A July 30 letter to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter found that it hosted a registered event where property was destroyed, with sanctions including a formal university censure.
An Aug. 11 letter to Sigma Nu described the fraternity chapter as "alleged to have violated numerous university policies over the span of several months," with the chapter held responsible for specific conduct code violations that included conduct endangering the health or safety of any person and providing alcohol to someone underage. Sanctions included probation into May of next year and "social restrictions" through this past October.
An Aug. 17 disciplinary letter to Phi Delta Theta stated that it was "alleged to have hosted multiple unregistered functions during spring 2021." In March, the same fraternity chapter was found responsible for providing alcohol to someone underage at an unregistered event. Sanctions included probation.
An Oct. 13 letter found the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity chapter responsible for hazing, though Flanagin has said that none of the sanctions placed on the chapter were related to alcohol and that no students were hurt. Sanctions for the fraternity chapter also known as "Fiji" included cancellation and nonapproval of social functions through the current fall semester.
In March, after the death of Ryan, the Kappa Alpha national organization ordered a temporary suspension pending an investigation.
In addition to the UA-ordered probation, the Kappa Alpha fraternity was required to pay $1,000 and "comply with all directives" from the chapter's national organization, according to UA's April disciplinary letter.
"The [UA] Office of Student Standards and Conduct engaged in a collaborative investigation and adjudication process with the Kappa Alpha National Administrative Offices," the disciplinary letter states.
The $1,000 payment from the fraternity chapter is for what the university calls a Registered Student Organization "conduct assessment," with payment amounts based on a sanctioning rubric. Such payments go to an educational fund and support prevention outreach efforts by the student conduct office, Flanagin has said.
Probation, according to the letter, "is imposed when a student organization's actions are found to be serious, but not serious enough to warrant Suspension."
Should there be a "further violation" of the conduct code while the organization is on probation, a penalty of suspension "will generally" be sought, the letter states.
Alcohol- or drug-related deaths involving underage students have at times resulted in criminal charges, often related to the providing of drugs or alcohol. The Fayetteville police reports about Ryan's death, released under the state's public disclosure law, make no indication of any arrests or citations.
A state law passed in 2015, the Joshua Ashley-Pauley Act, allows those reporting a drug overdose to avoid arrest for possessing a controlled substance. State lawmakers that same year also passed legislation, Act 381 of 2015, shielding underage drinkers from criminal prosecution should they seek emergency medical assistance, so long as they remain until help arrives and cooperate with police and medical workers.
'REALLY JUST SHOCKING'
"It's really just shocking. I think that's kind of how it is for a lot of us," said Madalyn Jones, 20, a UA senior from Arlington, Texas, describing the death of Ryan and other students in the 2020-21 academic year.
At least one UA student has died from suicide in 2021, according to coroner reports, while a former student, Chase Reel, 21, was killed in October 2020 at an off-campus apartment.
Both were UA fraternity members. In addition, a 20-year-old UA student died in January from a "cardiac rhythm disturbance" due to unknown natural causes at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house, according to a coroner's report.
Jones described substance abuse as common among some UA students and said she wished the university would do more to inform students rather than keep them in the dark.
"I mean, generally, it's just very widely accepted to abuse substances, and that's all different types," said Jones. "It's not uncommon for me to know someone who just casually does cocaine. When I was growing up, that was not normal."
Jones said information about student deaths gets around "through the grapevine."
She said students like her aren't getting the message about substance abuse resources or other prevention resources available on campus at UA's Pat Walker Medical Center, and she called for the university to do more outreach.
"Send out more resources about it: 'If you or a loved one at the university is experiencing substance abuse or these issues, reach out to Pat Walker. We have resources for you to use.'
"They never talk about these serious things that really plague the community," Jones said.
The university requires all incoming first-year students to complete an online alcohol abuse prevention course.
"They told us about it when we're 18, but every year we should get a reminder, 'Hey this is something that we should watch out for,'" Jones said.
The university has offices devoted to substance abuse prevention and suicide prevention, with staff members giving presentations to student groups such as fraternities and sororities, as well as in residence halls and classrooms.
The university also sponsors certain events to raise awareness, such as a Suicide Prevention Week in September.
Asked about the university's revised amnesty policy, Jones said she wasn't sure if she'd heard about it.
"A lot of people don't know about that, or in the heat of the moment they think they'll get in trouble," Jones said.
She added: "Maybe remind us about that every so often, that if you or someone you know is in trouble with substance abuse, we will not punish you. But if people don't know that, they're not going to do it."
Eikenberry said there has been a strong effort to let students know about the revised amnesty policy.
"All students in university housing are notified and educated on this policy as they enter housing with their resident assistants. So we really tried to get the word out," Eikenberry said.
The policy was renamed from the Razorback Medical Attention and Reporting Alternative Resolution Policy in hopes of making it more clear that it provided amnesty for students seeking or needing medical help, Eikenberry said.
Coleman Warren, UA's student body president and a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity, described efforts to reach UA fraternity chapters, most of which are members of the North American Interfraternity Conference.
"This year, I've visited every single IFC house because I know this is something that can be a community concern. I visited all of them, and I told them about the policy, how excited we were to be collaborating on this," Warren told the faculty.
Flanagin, the UA spokesman, said presentations about the policy have been made to all freshmen during their orientation.
When it comes to student life, "safety, I think, should just be the foundation of what universities focus on, outside of education," said Nall, the 2020-21 student body president.