Academy to use breath tests, threat of expulsion in effort to combat drinking-related problems

New rules get tough on Mids' alcohol use

September 15, 2006|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,SUN REPORTER

In a sweeping effort to stamp out sexual assaults and other problems stemming from alcohol abuse at the U.S. Naval Academy, school officials announced yesterday that they will use Breathalyzer tests and the threat of expulsion to force midshipmen - even those 21 and over - to curtail their drinking.

The enforcement tactics, which put the Naval Academy at the forefront of the "zero tolerance" movement at colleges nationwide, tolerate no underage drinking or driving under the influence of alcohol.

Since classes at the Annapolis military college resumed last month, midshipmen age 21 and older are limited to three drinks on a given night, and their blood-alcohol content is not to exceed 0.08 percent, the legal standard for drunken driving in many states, including Maryland.

Academy officials will give random breath tests to hundreds of students on weekends. Those who fail will be referred to the school's substance abuse counseling program. Second-time offenders and those with blood-alcohol levels of 0.15 percent or higher will be disciplined through the academy's conduct system. Punishments will include restriction to the dormitory, 5 a.m. marches and expulsion.

The academy hand-delivered letters outlining the new guidelines to bars and restaurants in the Annapolis area, asking them to go beyond checking student identifications. It urges them to allow code-enforcing midshipmen to drop in, encourage drunken midshipmen to go home and to call a pickup service or night watch officer if necessary.

Midshipmen are "not just here to get an education," said Cmdr. C.X. Kennedy, the Navy officer assigned to revise the academy's alcohol program. "It's a leadership issue here. Our students actively lead the brigade. They lead their underclass. Obviously, if they're going out and getting crazy and getting stupid, it does not give a good leadership example."

The policy marks a major expansion of the academy's current policy, and experts think that if it can be enforced, it will significantly curb the academy's long-standing problems with sexual assault. The vast majority of such cases recently have involved excessive drinking.

In July, former Navy quarterback Lamar S. Owens Jr. was acquitted of raping a female midshipman. Though underage, she had consumed as many as eight "hard" drinks in less than three hours in Annapolis bars on the night of the incident, according to trial testimony.

Another former Navy football player, Kenny Ray Morrison, is scheduled to go to trial this month on charges of assaulting a female midshipman at a Washington hotel after a night of drinking.

In 2003, two midshipmen were expelled from the academy after having sex with several women who said they were too drunk to resist.

In addition, two midshipmen under the influence of alcohol have died in falls from their dormitory since 2002.

"We understand the pervasiveness of this challenge at our nation's colleges and in our society as a whole," Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy superintendent, said in a statement released yesterday. "However, we are convinced that fulfilling our mission of preparing midshipmen morally, mentally and physically to be combat leaders of character requires holding them to a high standard."

The academy began to reconsider its alcohol abuse prevention program in October, officials said, when Rempt commissioned a group of officers, professors and midshipmen to come up with a new plan.

In 2004, academy officials began policing underage drinking by having random companies of midshipmen - groups of 140 - blow into Breathalyzers after checking in at night. Midshipmen were disciplined only if they violated another rule or otherwise behaved poorly while they were drunk, such as getting into fights or driving under the influence.

That policy mirrors standards at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., where drinking is limited but rules aren't as strictly enforced, spokesmen at those academies said.

The new Naval Academy rules are summarized with "0-0-1-3," which stands for "0" underage drinking, "0" drinks if driving, "1" drink per hour and "3" drinks on a given night.

Breathalyzer tests are given to about 840 midshipmen, about a fifth of the student body, each week, academy officials said.

The new enforcement will be supplemented by an extensive education program that includes as much as 40 hours of lectures, group discussions and online training.

The academy could not provide data yesterday on the number of violations this year or before that.

Catherine Bath, executive director of Security on Campus Inc., a national nonprofit that advises colleges and universities on campus safety, called the policy "a big step forward."

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