Towson University works to curb longstanding issues with drinking

Dozens of students are taken to hospitals each year for alcohol intoxication while hundreds are referred for possible discipline

September 13, 2014|Carrie Wells and Alison Knezevich | The Baltimore Sun

One Towson University student drank so much alcohol he was unable to speak and threw up "without a pause" before passing out outside a nearby apartment complex, according to an anguished email his mother sent to university officials. Another student attempted to drink a bottle of Southern Comfort and ended up in the hospital with a blood alcohol content of 0.34 percent, a level that's life-threatening. In 2012, a rugby club member was so intoxicated he told a dormitory resident assistant that the year was 1993.

Those incidents, detailed in reports obtained by The Baltimore Sun in a Maryland Public Information Act request, offer a glimpse at a long-standing problem that has troubled school officials, as well as area residents who must deal with rowdy off-campus parties.

For years, the 22,500-student university, the largest in the Baltimore area, has grappled with the problem — and the sometimes-deadly consequences. In 2007 and 2011, Towson students died in alcohol-related incidents. Now, despite a push by the university for alcohol education programs, school officials acknowledge that dozens of Towson students are taken by ambulance to hospitals each year for alcohol intoxication and hundreds are referred for possible discipline for violating alcohol-related laws.

The issue came into the spotlight again last weekend, when Towson freshman Julia Margaret Ratnaraj, 18, died after falling backward into a sliding glass door and injuring her head and neck. Baltimore County police said that she was at a small off-campus party and that witnesses said she was drinking before the incident, though the role alcohol played in her death, if any, is not yet known.

Towson is hardly the only college to seek ways to curb excessive and underage student drinking; a recent survey of public and private universities in the state showed that almost half of students engage in binge drinking. Towson officials say they have stepped up their alcohol awareness programs and enforcement in recent years, and made other changes to try to contain the problem and keep it from spilling into neighboring communities.

"Towson University has changed remarkably," said Paul Hartman, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations. "That doesn't mean all the problems are solved or even close to being solved. But we have a partner now."

While colleges like Towson educate students about alcohol and punish them for violating policies, they must still balance the rights of students who are usually adults and often do their drinking off-campus.

"I think that the biggest challenge is that we have a society that is very permissive when it comes to alcohol," said Deb Moriarty, Towson's vice president for student affairs. "It's everywhere you go. Children are exposed to it at a very young age. Students come to college with well-developed drinking experiences. Many students are not coming to college and drinking for the first time.

"I think there's a societal [belief] that this is a rite of passage," Moriarty said. "That is a huge uphill battle when the majority of students who live on campus are underage, and you've got a 21-year-old drinking age but a society that expects when you're in college you drink."

Widespread problem

Alcohol-related problems are widespread across Maryland, according to a report released last month by the Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking and Related Problems, a group formed in 2012 that includes Towson University's president and 10 other college presidents. The report did not break out results from individual schools, and it is unclear how Towson compares to other universities on the issue of problem drinking.

The report, based on campus surveys at schools that included the Johns Hopkins University, Loyola University Maryland, Towson, and the University of Maryland, College Park found that 80 percent of students consumed at least one drink during the past year and about 68 percent had had alcohol during the past 30 days. And that has led to a lot of problems.

"Alcohol consumption was related to experiencing a wide variety of negative consequences," the report said. It found that among students who drank during the past year, 34 percent blacked out, 14 percent were hurt or injured, 13 percent drove a car when they had been drinking and 8 percent damaged property.

Some of those troubling consequences were detailed in the Towson University reports obtained by The Sun; they were related to discipline by the school against student organizations, including fraternities and sororities.

In one case in March 2012, for example, a student was found by campus police sitting on the floor of a dorm "amongst vomit," and was semiconscious and incoherent, according to a police report included in the documents. He was taken in an ambulance to St. Joseph Medical Center.

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