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GERMS, Georgetown’s student-run emergency medical response service, contributes to our community by offering free, confidential care 24 hours a day. GERMS is bound by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 Privacy Rule to keep patient information private, and for most of us, the anonymity of GERMS matters – if students drink too much, they or their friends can call for help without worrying about repercussions.

Given recent events, however, calling GERMS might not always be as confidential a process as we thought.

In the incident in question, a resident assistant (who will remain anonymous as part of an ongoing investigation at press time) was fired after friends called GERMS for assistance with a medical issue unrelated to alcohol. EMTs from GERMS and Department of Public Safety officers arrived later.

Drinking had been going on before DPS arrived. The RA in question, who is under the age of 21, had consumed about four drinks. The DPS report acknowledged that the RA had been drinking, and the RA was later fired for violating Office of Residence Life policy.

That the RA was fired is not the real problem – the RA broke the rules and paid for it. The problem is how it was done. When Residence Life used a DPS report following the GERMS call to punish this student, it compromised the confidentiality of calling GERMS.

The genius of GERMS is the way it accounts for students’ interests. Through its ostensible confidentiality, it gives students an option they otherwise might not have: emergency care without the prospect of being punished. GERMS lowers the stakes of drinking at Georgetown, making our community safer.

We don’t question the responsibility of DPS officers to answer GERMS calls and file corresponding reports. GERMS and DPS share the same radio channels and dispatch center, and DPS answers most GERMS calls alongside student EMTs as protocol. To protect student EMTs and others – just in case situations involve more than drinking, for example – DPS must be allowed to investigate all possible emergencies.

As seen in this case, there may be instances in which information from DPS reports is made known to hall directors, and that information can result in disciplinary action. Residence Life should prohibit hall directors from using GERMS-related DPS reports that solely involve violations of alcohol policy to discipline students.

If the possibility that this sort of GERMS call could result in punishment exists, the crucial confidentiality offered by GERMS is damaged. Residence Life too is charged, in part, with protecting residents – but in disciplining GERMS callers when they are violating university policy, it fails to do so. By potentially discouraging residents to call GERMS in alcohol-related incidents, hall directors may encourage students to take their chances. It’s a gamble that GERMS was meant to eliminate.

Residence Life should disallow its staff from following up on GERMS calls with disciplinary action. Students should feel safe from punishment when they call GERMS – otherwise, they lose an essential, reliable option in emergencies. While most hall directors already recognize this reality, it’s not enough for hall directors to be permitted to look the other way; Residence Life must make this concrete policy. GERMS must be able to assure students that their calls are confidential – student safety depends on it.

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