Student drinking causes emergency on campus University of Virginia finds that over 75% of underage students drink

March 08, 1998|By Michael Winerip | Michael Winerip,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Getting in to see John Casteen III is no easy matter. As president of the University of Virginia, one of the nation's premier colleges, he is often on the road, raising money for a $750 million capital fund drive that does not end until the year 2000. When he is on campus, he is tightly scheduled. Early in the morning, appointments begin to back up in the elegant waiting room outside his Madison Hall office. Alumni, faculty, undergraduates, doctoral candidates, state legislators, bankers, the student reporter from the Cavalier Daily Q - they all want a few minutes.

But one afternoon recently, the busy president abruptly canceled his appointments and drove two hours from the Charlottesville campus to Reston,Va., to visit the parents of Leslie Baltz, an honors student in the Class of '98.

Casteen makes these visits once or twice a year, though he is never sure if the parents will want to see him, given the circumstances. That previous weekend, Baltz, a 21-year-old senior who was on the dean's list every semester, was drinking heavily. There are some who believe she was doing her "fourth-year fifth," the long-standing practice of University of Virginia seniors to consume a fifth of liquor for the last home football game.

Seeing how drunk she was that Saturday afternoon, her girlfriends left her on a couch upstairs at one of their apartments, then went to the game against Virginia Tech. When the friends returned at 9:30 that evening, Baltz was at the foot of the stairs, unconscious, face up, her legs on the stairway. The friends called 911, and she was taken to the university medical center.

Not a rare occurrence

This is not a rare occurrence. Every weekend, between three and 10 University of Virginia students arrive in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning or an alcohol-related injury. That day, another student had such severe poisoning from drinking bourbon at a tailgating party that he stopped breathing and was placed on a respirator in the same intensive care unit as Leslie Baltz.

A blood sample showed Baltz's alcohol level was 0.27 - more than three times the state limit for intoxication. From the internal injuries to her brain, authorities surmised that the honors student had risen from the upstairs couch, then fallen down the apartment stairs, head first.

"Generally speaking, the families don't want to see me, but some do," Casteen said. "One comes into the family's life as an invader. You go in the family's home, and what you're dealing with is their awareness it will never be the same again. A child who was a treasure, who was precious, and you see the physical leavings are all over the family's lives. All the remnants of their achievements in grade school, their clothing, their awards, their photographs - sometimes an automobile - they're all there. A family is dealing with that lost child and you know that it will never be the same.

"In my family," continued Casteen, the father of two teen-agers, "the way we deal with grief or joy is through religious practices, but that's not part of what we can do; this is a public institution. The culture is very secular. What I can say is, I feel sorrow. I offer whatever help. Mostly what I do is listen, often for a couple of hours."

On Nov. 30, Leslie Baltz became the fifth Virginia college student to die in a month's time in alcohol-related accidents. Three - from Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth and Radford University - were killed in drunken driving crashes. An 18-year-old Virginia Tech freshman who was sleeping off a night of heavy partying rolled off her bed, out her dorm window and fell eight stories.

This string of deaths followed the much publicized drinking deaths earlier in 1997 at MIT and Louisiana State University, and numerous less publicized ones at Fordham University; Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y.; Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.; St. Mary's University in Winona, Minn.; the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; Pennsylvania State University; the State University College at Cortland, N.Y.

Virginia officials were spurred to take action: They convened a daunting number of task force committees and subcommittees on ways to curb binge drinking by students. State Attorney General Richard Cullen led the way, assembling a 38-member task force that includes 14 of Virginia's college presidents.

But while there is no shortage of alcohol task forces across America - like tombstones, they tend to appear wherever a student dies - there is a noticeable shortage of solutions. It is not clear whether more college students are dying from alcohol these days, or if it's a matter of the media paying more attention to the issue lately because of a few sensational cases. Several public health experts say they know of no long-term national statistics on college alcohol fatalities.

Numbers show decline

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