Academy alcohol use seen unabated

Infractions continue despite new monitoring effort, midshipman says in memo to students

February 15, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,sun reporter

The Naval Academy has recently seen what a high-ranking midshipman called an "unacceptable" increase in alcohol rules infractions, despite the launch last fall of a strict policy that put the school at the forefront of efforts at colleges nationwide to curb binge drinking.

In a memo sent yesterday to all 4,400 midshipmen and obtained by The Sun, senior Rachel Barton, the drug and alcohol education student officer, said that in the past six weeks, midshipmen had violated the new rules as much as they did in the previous six months.

"The number of alcohol incidents within the Brigade lately has been unacceptable," she wrote, urging them to be responsible during the coming long weekend. "Have fun, but think about what you are doing. Have a plan when you go out and look out for each other."

Barton also reminded her classmates that if they are found to be alcohol abusers, many of the prestigious Navy communities such as pilots or SEALs would not accept them.

The Naval Academy defended the policy yesterday, noting that of the 6,219 Breathalyzer tests administered last fall, 6,080 were negative for alcohol use. Of the 139 that detected alcohol use, more than 100 were within the range the academy has deemed responsible. Only 0.4 percent, or about 25, showed a 0.08 blood-alcohol level or higher. A spokesman said previous years' statistics were not available.

Alcohol infractions this academic year also have declined drastically compared to the previous four academic years, several academy officials said. Because those infractions, which include underage drinking, drinking in the academy dorm or "drinking to bring discredit upon the Navy," are declining, the policy is succeeding, they said.

Cmdr. C. X. Kennedy, the officer charged with implementing and monitoring the policy, said officials are proud of Barton for "taking ownership of this policy." He did not vet the message before it went out to midshipmen.

"This was something she believed in, and it's an example of midshipmen trying to take care of issues among themselves," he said. "We're cautiously optimistic that the midshipmen are taking this on board."

The academy did not make Barton available for an interview.

Not every midshipman, however, is enthusiastic about the rules.

"I don't understand why the administration is mad about it," one midshipman said in reference to the increase in violations. This student was not authorized to speak to The Sun and asked not to be named.

"What did they expect from their new policy? To deter people from drinking? No," the midshipman said. "The only reason more people are getting in trouble is because more people are getting caught."

Last September, after months of bruising exposure from two sexual misconduct trials - both of which involved midshipmen's admissions of binge drinking - the academy announced a sweeping effort to stamp out excessive alcohol use.

The rules, and how they have been enforced, are as specific and thorough as any that have been implemented in recent years at colleges around the country. They prohibit all underage drinking, and Mids over 21 are limited to one drink per hour and three drinks on any given evening, not to exceed 0.08 blood-alcohol content, the legal standard for drunken driving in Maryland and many other states.

Those who fail random breath tests are counseled the first time, but those caught twice, or with higher than a 0.15 blood-alcohol content, can be disciplined with restriction to the dorm, 5 a.m. marches and even expulsion.

Donny Bailey, manager of O'Brien's Oyster Bar and Restaurant, a frequent Annapolis hangout for Mids, was one of many proprietors who received hand-delivered letters from academy officials in the fall, outlining the new rules and asking the owners to go beyond checking student identifications.

Code-enforcing midshipmen drop in frequently, Bailey said, and some Mids take advantage of a pickup driving service as well.

Drinking has "declined so much, it's scary," he said. "They can't drink 20 shots like they used to. Ever since the rape last year, it's gone down. They just get in too much trouble."

Many who praised the new standard, such as youth drinking experts and members of the school's civilian oversight panel, also hoped they would curb longstanding problems with sexual assault.

A 2004 study by the Harvard School of Public Health and two other universities concluded that women from colleges with medium and high rates of binge drinking were almost twice as likely to be raped while intoxicated as women at colleges with low rates.

The authors of the study said that binge drinking "is the number one public health problem among college students - associated with a range of consequences such as poor grades, vandalism and sexual violence."

Toben Nelson, a Harvard researcher who has worked on the study since 1998, cautioned that spikes in infractions could be more of a result of enforcement than an uptick in drinking.

"Drinking behavior varies quite a bit, during the football season, from week to week, and during finals periods, when there's less going on than after an Army-Navy game," he said.

But around the country, colleges that have been most successful in combating binge drinking have placed restrictions on the access and availability of alcohol, he said, much like the academy's program.

"If they can reduce consumption even a little bit, but do it across an entire population of students, that's an effective way of reducing the harms brought by excess consumption," he said.

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