Planting seeds of responsibility Frostberg State takes up the challenge posed by alcohol abuse

March 23, 1997|By CATHERINE GIRA

In November 1996, a 21-year-old freshman at Frostburg State University died of alcohol poisoning after attending an off-campus party. Eight students accused of selling him the liquor have been charged with manslaughter.

On Feb. 9, 1997, a 17-year-old freshman at a university in upstate New York died of alcohol poisoning at a fraternity rush event. Twelve students have been charged in his death.

Two summers ago, a 15-year-old boy from the South, visiting Ocean City, consumed a lethal amount of alcohol at a teen-age party and died.

On Feb. 28, 1997, in Woburn, Mass., 13 teen-agers, ages 13 to 16, took seven to 35 pills of Baclofen, a prescription drug, washing it down with beer. They were celebrating their selection to the cheerleading squad, and their celebration nearly cost them their lives.

Week after week, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports stories and alarming statistics about binge-drinking among college students and about behavior often associated with excessive alcohol consumption: vandalism, assault, rape - even murder.

In the face of these overwhelming problems, what can today's university do?

Years ago, the answer was much more simple. The institution was expected - and was presumed to have the legal authority - to function in loco parentis, laying down strict rules to govern the behavior of students on and off campus.

Like parents, even public universities and colleges could require students to live on campus; could monitor and control their every movement (or at least try to); could create insular, homogeneous student populations; could refuse to admit whomever they wished on virtually any grounds (e.g., if the applicant were "older" or married), without respect to the constitutional rights of those applicants.

It was the kind of world I lived in as an undergraduate, mirroring the kind of home in which I lived under the loving but sheltered, protective care of my parents.

Most of today's universities and colleges, especially public institutions, are very different places. Rather than serving in loco parentis, they serve, if you will, in loco communitatis, as microcosms of the broader communities from which their students are drawn.

Their students represent diverse populations - racially, culturally, socially, economically. They come from metropolitan areas, small towns and rural communities, from traditional two-parent families and one-parent households.

Some of them are heads of their own households. They may be a precocious 16-year-old, a returning adult in his or her 40s or a senior citizen. They may choose to live on campus or in rental housing off-campus, or they may commute as full-or part-time students.

And they carry with them many long-ingrained habits of mind and behavior, sometimes the habits of drug or alcohol abuse.

Statistics recently released by the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information indicate that an alarming number of young people begin to consume alcohol and other dangerous substances at earlier and earlier ages. (Twenty percent of eighth-graders have taken illicit drugs, including alcohol, marijuana or inhalants.)

Some of them imbibe alcohol daily and become alcoholics long before they leave high school or even middle school.

Which brings me back to my earlier question: What can we, as administrators of these complex, diverse institutions, do to address a problem of gigantic proportions across our nation?.

We can institute aggressive programs to educate our students to the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse from the time they enter as freshmen, in a course required of all freshmen.

We can conduct seminars and workshops in our residence halls.

We can be unrelentingly vigilant in prohibiting the consumption of alcohol by minors on our campus.

We can bring in motivational speakers - reformed youthful alcoholics and drug abusers - to tell stories to our students.

We can encourage and support students who are committed to counseling their peers about the dangers of and need for moderation in alcohol consumption.

We can train our residence life staff to recognize danger signals of alcohol abuse and refer students who need help to professional counselors.

We can suspend or expel students whose behavior causes harm or danger to others.

We can form a standing campus Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse to monitor the problem and continue to develop ways to reduce it.

All these things we have done and continue to do at Frostburg State University, and we have won national awards for some of these programs.

But the problem is not contained on our campus. Whereas students in large metropolitan areas who wish to overindulge in alcohol have many sites from which to choose - from fraternity houses to off-campus pubs and local "watering holes" - in Frostburg, a small town, they go to a few houses occupied by students living off-campus, most of them within range of about five blocks.

Why do our campus police not seek them out and arrest them?

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