Violence and alcohol 101

Our view: Killing of beloved Cockeysville lacrosse player at the University of Virginia underscores the need for colleges and universities to get tougher on alcohol abuse

May 09, 2010

The tragic death of University of Virginia student Yeardley Love last Monday ought to be a wake-up call to the nation's colleges and universities not only of the peril of violence on campus but of the alcohol abuse that helps fuel it. George Huguely, the former boyfriend charged with her murder, has a history of public intoxication and incidents of violent behavior.

That both victim and alleged perpetrator are Marylanders — raised in the seemingly protective shelter of affluence, private schools and lacrosse fields — has made the episode all the more chilling. By all counts, Ms. Love was an extraordinary young woman, and her loss is a devastation to her family and those who knew her, from Charlottesville to Cockeysville.

Alcohol use offers no excuse for Mr. Huguely's behavior — he has admitted to breaking down Ms. Love's door and shaking her so that her head repeatedly struck the wall — but the connection between criminal assault and substance abuse, particularly drinking, is too well established to ignore. The nation's schools have an alcohol problem, and it's time college presidents and school administrators started taking greater responsibility for it.

The statistics are daunting. Studies suggest college students between the ages of 18 and 24 suffer nearly 700,000 assaults and 600,000 injuries each year that are alcohol-related. An estimated 1,700 students are killed from drinking-fueled injuries, including car crashes.

Harvard School of Public Health surveys show two out of every five college students are binge drinkers. And small wonder, as researchers note they have relatively easy access to low-priced alcohol in typical college communities.

Schools have not exactly ignored the problem. But their response has often been tepid. Two years ago, college presidents from more than 100 of the country's best known schools called on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21, in the misguided notion that it might actually reduce binge drinking. The list included the heads of the University of Maryland College Park and Towson University, and the former head of the Johns Hopkins University.

What college administrators should be doing (and many have) is coming down much harder on students who are caught drinking to excess, particularly those involved in assaults or property damage. One of the things that fuels such behavior is the knowledge that there are no significant consequences for illegal or irresponsible drinking, on or off campus.

But even that is not enough. More must be done in the communities surrounding the schools to make sure bars and liquor stores aren't serving under-age buyers. Neighbors must sound the alarm when off-campus parties get out of hand. Colleges should be patrolling neighborhoods to ensure their students haven't become unruly. They also need to better educate students on the dangers of binge drinking and offer alternative activities that don't involve alcohol consumption.

Schools don't operate in a vacuum. High school alcohol abusers become college alcohol abusers. Society has long embraced the notion that drinking to excess in college is a rite of passage to adulthood. And the alcohol industry, particularly the major beer companies, make a fortune marketing their products to the young.

That doesn't absolve colleges from their responsibilities. Nor does the fact that the problem is complex and many of the solutions potentially expensive at a time when many are getting priced out of a four-year degree. UVA President John T. Casteen is right to call on the commonwealth to enact laws requiring police to report student arrests to the university, but there are measures he and other campus leaders can take on their own to spot problems in their midst.

Last month, police handed out 48 citations to Towson University students, many for alcohol-related offenses ranging from drinking in public to disorderly conduct, when off-campus festivities during the annual Tigerfest got out of hand. Was the school upset by the crackdown? Not exactly. The university had paid for extra officers to be on hand to address unruly behavior.

The school also knew immediately about which students were involved. Baltimore County police routinely share such information under a cooperative agreement.

College and university officials need to pursue more such creative strategies to address binge drinking. But as long as the general public accepts such dangerous behavior as the norm for 18-to-22-year-olds, there's little chance they'll succeed.

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