Alcohol rules review mixed

Some praise policy at Naval Academy

others grumbling

September 26, 2006|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun Reporter

Washington -- The Naval Academy's strict new alcohol rules are meeting with some resistance among students, although the changes have made it easier to police one another, one midshipman told a civilian oversight panel yesterday.

"Resistance is there," said James Mahan, 24, a senior leader in the midshipman chain of command. "Most college students don't like being told how much they can and can't drink. But that's what's expected of us, and it gives people an idea of where they're supposed to be and how we can try to help each other."

Mahan was speaking to the academy's Board of Visitors - a panel made up of appointed members of Congress, retired military leaders and education professionals - at a quarterly meeting.

"I think it's quite appropriate," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who was recently appointed to the board, in a telephone interview after the meeting. "These are some of our best and brightest young people, and they are going to be our leaders of tomorrow. They should be about the business of setting an example on campus, not only for each other but for other schools throughout the country."

Cummings said the rules are "reasonable" and that Mids "just want to know what the standards are, and they want to adhere to them. They realize that they are a very privileged bunch."

Earlier this month, the academy announced sweeping changes to how it regulates alcohol use, including plans to use Breathalyzer tests and the threat of expulsion to force midshipmen - even those 21 and over - to curtail their drinking. School officials have said the effort will help address continuing challenges with sexual assault and other problems stemming from alcohol abuse at the Annapolis military college. Two midshipmen under the influence of alcohol have fallen to their deaths from the academy's dormitory, Bancroft Hall, since 2002.

The new rules come with a catchy shorthand - "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. Blood-alcohol content is not to exceed 0.08 percent, the legal threshold for drunken driving in many states, including Maryland. To enforce the policy, academy officials give Breathalyzer tests to about 840 midshipmen, about one-fifth of the student body, each week.

Academy officials yesterday declined to say how many midshipmen, if any, have been caught running afoul of the new rules. The policy took effect last month when students returned for fall classes.

A spirited debate has swelled up among alumni. Many hark back to a time when drinking wasn't allowed unless it took place miles from the campus, and others object to adding new regulations when midshipmen are already beleaguered by existing rules.

Dave Quint, a 1987 graduate, said Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt - the academy superintendent - has gone too far, micromanaging instead of using the long-established honor concept to keep Mids in line. He drew a comparison between the new alcohol rules and Rempt's failed prosecution of Navy quarterback Lamar S. Owens Jr., who was acquitted on rape charges stemming from an incident in which alcohol was involved.

"He [Rempt] means well, but just like with the Midshipman Owens debacle, the impact is exponentially worse than his intent. ... It's stupid with two O's," Quint said.

Glen Weeks, an attorney and 1965 graduate, said in an e-mail that "alumni know that alcohol abuse has been a problem at the academy, just like at most colleges, for a long time.

"I think it is great that the superintendent is doing something. I am concerned that the legalistic approach outlined will interfere with officers at the academy using common sense and experience in correcting inappropriate behavior by `drunk' midshipmen. The essence of being a military officer is not following rules, but rather using experienced judgment. Our legal system is not suited to teaching midshipmen to do that, and wastes vast amounts of time and effort in a misguided attempt to be perfectly `fair.' Left alone by lawyers, the officers at the academy can handle the task, if they but will."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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