The college drug of choice

Editorial Notebook

September 23, 2006|By Peter Jensen

This month, a 45-year-old Frostburg man was walking home from work when he was assaulted by a young man outside an off-campus fraternity house. Punched in the face for no apparent reason, he fell backward and his head struck the pavement, nearly killing him. More than two weeks later, Steven A. Buckalew is still a patient in a local hospital - and in stable condition as of late yesterday. Police have filed assault charges against a 20-year-old Frostburg State University student who investigators believe had been drinking at a fraternity house party that night.

The incident horrified Jonathan Gibralter, Frostburg's incoming president, who, in an open letter to students, promised a "zero tolerance" policy with tougher enforcement and penalties for alcohol-related infractions. "Students under the influence and abusing the university's alcohol and other drug policies, both on and off campus, will be dealt ... no leniency," he wrote.

Last week, the U.S. Naval Academy also chose to clamp down on alcohol abuse with a zero tolerance policy that promises expulsion for those caught in violation through random Breathalyzer tests, including midshipmen age 21 or older found to be legally drunk. The policy stems from various incidents of alleged sexual assault by midshipmen under the influence in recent years.

Across the country, putting the squeeze on student drinking, particularly binge drinking, has become the order of the day - and it's more than overdue. Heavy drinking continues to be as much a part of campus life as Homecoming. An ongoing study of college drinking at the Harvard School of Public Health has found that about two out of five students binge drink, and that ratio is little changed in a decade or more of tracking.

The costs are significant. An estimated 1,400 students die each year in alcohol-related incidents. Criminal behavior on and off campus, including sexual assault and vandalism, is frequently linked to student drinking. The Harvard study estimates that students spend more than $5 billion each year on alcohol, far more than they spend on textbooks or computers.

But it's unlikely enforcement alone can change behavior. Research suggests that the schools with the most success fighting binge drinking have usually taken a broader approach that includes instituting education and marketing campaigns, creating and promoting alcohol-free activities, cracking down on alcohol sales, and generally changing the culture of a campus.

At the Johns Hopkins University, alcohol-related incidents were down 25 percent in the last school year thanks to such comprehensive tactics, according to Susan K. Boswell, the university's dean of student life. One of the most effective strategies was to hire a former campus security worker to hang out in off-campus student housing sites and social centers to monitor students - even to the early hours of the morning - and discourage heavy drinking and other bad behaviors.

Hopkins also strengthened sanctions for alcohol violations, but officials concluded that simply turning resident advisers into beer-can cops would only send drinking behind doors. Likewise, schools that promise an alcohol-free campus can wind up encouraging students to drive to far-flung taverns or other off-campus alternatives and raise the risk of drunken driving.

Frostburg's Mr. Gibralter has called on his nearly 5,000 students to offer their own ideas about how to curb drinking and reverse the institution's reputation as a "party school." Local police say they're impressed by the campaign so far and the school's efforts to mend historic town-gown relations. Ten days ago, more than 200 students participated in a candlelight vigil and march in honor of Mr. Buckalew. Tough talk and rallies are a good start. Combating the larger forces that cause so many students to drink excessively will require a lot more time, money and just about every other tool in a college president's arsenal.

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