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The Binge Drinking Battle

"There is not a college campus in this country that doesn't have a problem with alcohol," says Patti Helton, DU's associate provost of campus life. Photo: Tim Ryan

By day, they are the picture of wholesome youth: fresh-faced, earnest and full of promise.

Come Friday night, America’s future doctors, lawyers, educators and business leaders transform into creatures their parents and professors barely recognize: wild, destructive and bent on consuming dangerous, even life-imperiling, levels of alcohol.

These are the college students that Americans routinely meet in their newspapers. They are binge drinkers, consuming four or more drinks in a sitting, sometimes 30 or 40 in the course of a party. They are rioting in the streets, torching cars, driving while intoxicated and, all too often, ending their binge in a stupor, if not in a coffin.

The challenge of alcohol

No one knows what percentage of the campus population they represent, but at least one academic study cited by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicates that as many as 50 percent of college men and 39 percent of college women are binge drinkers. Increasingly, these students are presenting universities, including DU, with some of their most pressing challenges. In fall 2004, for example, alcohol poisoning was linked to student deaths at Colorado State University and the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus. In each instance, the quantities of alcohol consumed sent shock waves through the university communities, causing administrators to reassess the drinking cultures at their schools.

Whether they are a minority or a legion, binge drinkers have emerged as a peculiarly American college phenomenon, says Patti Helton, DU’s associate provost of campus life. “There is not a college campus in this country that doesn’t have a problem with alcohol,” she says. Alcohol abuse was certainly an issue at the faith-based institution where she worked before coming to DU. And, it’s unquestionably a problem at DU, though perhaps less so than at so-called party schools.

Defining the problem has been challenging for universities everywhere, in large part because it’s difficult to determine whether the numbers of binge drinkers are increasing or whether the binge episodes are simply getting worse. What’s more, many universities — DU included — have yet to track student conduct carefully enough to quantify, much less understand, the trends. Nonetheless, Helton says, the sense is that the binge-drinking problem is worsening, bit by bit, year after year.

Dan Kast, director of DU’s Office of Citizenship and Community Standards, notes that during the 2003-04 academic year, his office handled 391 cases of liquor-law and University alcohol policy violations, a 56-percent increase from the prior year. (Violations included everything from the lone six-pack discovered in a dorm room to underage drinking.)

That spike seems to indicate that drinking is a growing problem, but Kast isn’t so sure. His office recorded a comparable increase in each of the 17 conduct categories monitored, suggesting not so much that misbehavior is increasing, but that reporting is up. Kast expects the numbers to climb again this year as DU continues to address conduct issues.

Whether binge drinking is on the rise or simply getting more attention, it remains a troubling issue for administrators, DU’s neighbors and even students themselves. Barbara Steinmeyer, who has lived three blocks west of campus for 20 years, reports that on any given weekend, the streets around her house are littered with keg party detritus. The mess is distressing enough, Steinmeyer says, but the biggest problems stem from intoxicated students who intimidate neighbors, destroy gardens, urinate on lawns and drive recklessly. The neighbors, she adds, “are terrified that someone is going to get hurt.”

In a bid to tackle the problem, the neighborhood’s association asked Steinmeyer to track complaints to Denver police. Neighbors call Steinmeyer whenever they’ve summoned police, and she follows up to see how complaints are resolved. Last spring, Steinmeyer fielded a dozen calls a month. In fall 2004, her phone started ringing the day students began moving into the residence halls.

The stories students tell also present a frightening picture in which underage men and women drink not simply to get drunk but to do so as rapidly as possible. “They are going from sober to drunk in 10 minutes,” says one first-year biology major of her classmates. Speaking on condition of anonymity, she describes revelries that begin in the residence halls, where students engage in “pre-gaming.”

“That’s drinking before they go to parties,” she explains, noting that it facilitates faster inebriation once the party starts. And how much do students drink in, say, a single sitting? “Huge amounts,” she says. “Amounts that just boggle the mind. Seven or eight beers and 10 or 12 shots. I don’t know how they are still alive.”

Other students — all of whom also asked to remain anonymous — corroborate her observations and acknowledge that college drinking is out of control.

“Freshman year was all about drinking as much as possible before passing out,” recalls one junior environmental science major. “For a while, we were drinking four or five nights a week, getting really drunk every time.

“At the end of a hard week,” she adds, “the easiest way to unwind and have a good time is to get drunk and have fun. You may feel like crap the next morning, but at the time it’s a blast.”

A blast perhaps, but also, she acknowledges, a high-risk brand of fun. “On more than one occasion, I have been in situations where I’m pretty sure that people had alcohol poisoning, but I didn’t do anything about it because I didn’t want that person to get into trouble … It’s hard to tell if a person who is sick or passed out is really in trouble, especially when you are drunk yourself and your judgment is heavily impaired.”

Peers, she notes, are often the ones encouraging students to overindulge. “It’s hard to tell who to trust and listen to after you’ve downed a few shots.”

That was the experience of one 21-year-old senior public policy major — a fraternity member active in several campus organizations. In his first year at DU, he was pressured by fellow revelers — people he considered friends — to drink in pursuit of passing out. “People push you to drink beyond your limits, and you want to appease them,” he recalls. After one particularly nasty hangover, he realized he’d rather skip the pro forma binging. “I personally would have a far greater time by staying sober and remembering what I did last night,” he says.

Brad Wiles, BA ’04, learned a similar lesson. During his first year at DU, he partied several days a week. “I was at a new place and it was fun to meet new people out of the classroom environment. I looked forward to drinking and partying throughout the week,” he recalls. But, the drinking put him further and further behind in his studies. Eventually, he discovered that fewer hangovers translated into better grades. And, Wiles notes, “I had begun enjoying my classes, so it didn’t seem like as big of a sacrifice.”

Given the intensity of the drinking culture, universities across the nation are struggling to devise effective countermeasures. Some are adopting disciplinary tactics that range from expulsion to suspension of financial aid. Others are attempting to reshape the community environment, doing everything from closing fraternity houses to suspending alcohol sales at sporting events. But, as DU Neighbor Liaison Neil Krauss, MA ’94, points out, no one solution is likely to solve the problem. Nor, he contends, is the problem entirely solvable. In an unstructured environment in which students are tasting freedom for the first time, they will test the limits. But that doesn’t mean, he adds, that the problem can’t be mitigated.

DU’s strategy falls into two categories: reactive and proactive. On the reactive side, the emphasis has been on attaching consequences to misconduct. “We know that when we hold students responsible, things seem to get better,” Krauss notes.

Kast agrees, noting that DU’s small size allows it to deal firmly — and personally — with even minor offenses. “At the larger institutions, what you see happening is that they spend a lot of time on the frequent fliers. At a smaller institution, you can focus on everybody,” he explains.

First violations of the school’s alcohol policy — which prohibits possession, use, manufacture, distribution or sale of alcoholic beverages — trigger a warning from Kast’s office, complemented by a meeting with Kast himself. But, Kast points out that some infractions are serious enough to merit immediate probation or even suspension. “We don’t have a ‘three strikes’ policy,” he says.

For most first-time offenders, however, the warning and consultation work. Kast says he sees few repeat offenders. (Recidivism, he says, is down by 31 percent this year with just under 11 percent of offenders needing to come through his office more than once.) Kast uses his student meetings to conduct a conversation about responsibility. “Most of the time the student is ready to own up to what happened,” he says.

Second offenses of the alcohol policy, as well as first violations of some laws, typically lead to probation, which severely restricts a student’s extracurricular options, including study abroad. Even so, 273 students were placed on probation in 2003-04, up from 114 the year before. “To get suspended, all you have to do is violate your probation,” Kast says, noting that 32 students were suspended in 2003-04, compared to 10 the previous year. (Not all suspensions were alcohol-related, but alcohol violations account for the majority, Kast says.)

The University also is working with fraternities and sororities to ensure compliance with alcohol policies. Greek Life Director Carl Johnson notes that fraternities and sororities are not allowed to have alcohol in the common areas, though individual members can have alcohol in their rooms if they are of age. In addition, Greek organizations have begun registering their parties with the Interfraternity Council — a mandatory move that helps them distribute their social events evenly and that creates a culture mindful of excessive partying. Only one fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, has repeatedly violated rules, and as a result, the University revoked its recognition last fall, Johnson says.

In the residence halls, resident assistants are trained to confront and deal with alcohol misuse. Helton notes that in fall quarter alone, 228 students — of approximately 2,150 total residents — were sanctioned for residence hall alcohol violations.

Off campus, DU is collaborating with the Denver Police Department to address the drinking problem. Krauss alerts the police when academic quarters are beginning and ending — when partying typically peaks. Armed with this information, police officers occasionally infiltrate parties or conduct sting operations at liquor stores, checking for fake IDs. During a one-weekend crackdown in September 2004, police cited or charged 36 DU students for violations related to excessive noise or underage drinking. First-year students committed most of the underage drinking violations, Kast says, adding that DU follows up on police actions with its own disciplinary measures, which can include expulsion.

The University also hopes to curb misconduct through ongoing educational initiatives that begin at orientation, when first-year students learn about the DU community norms and the risks of alcohol abuse. New students are required to attend Community Cornerstones, an event that includes a conversation about the links between alcohol abuse and sexual assault. Students also have an opportunity to try on “beer goggles” that simulate the vision of an intoxicated individual. A volunteer student team, GAMMA, provides peer education in the residence halls and Greek houses, while Health and Counseling Services acknowledges every student’s 21st birthday by sending an e-greeting that links to a Web site about responsible drinking. In addition, Kast recently expanded his one-person office by hiring an assistant to help develop educational programming.

Just as important, Helton says, DU is continuing efforts to foster a culture that promotes engagement and frowns upon antisocial behavior. “If the peer culture encourages drinking,” she notes, “you’ll have drinking on campus. That culture is set during the first weeks on campus.”

With that in mind, DU is working to keep first-year students busy and connected, whether through living and learning communities or via faculty mentoring in special seminars. Research suggests that once students have connected with a responsible peer group or professor, chances are they’ll behave responsibly. DU also is encouraging students not to look the other way when they see peers engaging in destructive behavior. The newly revised code of student conduct reminds students that they can be held accountable for violations of DU policy that occur within residence hall rooms, even if the violation was the result of a roommate’s misbehavior.

Helton hopes that students will play a big role in addressing binge drinking. DU students value the campus culture and don’t want to see it become a “party school,” she says. They may look the other way for a while, she adds, but then they’ll tell their peers that certain behavior simply isn’t condoned here.

Senior history and English major Annie Kinkel agrees. “I think most DU students come here knowing that it’s not a party school. We don’t have to deal with the baggage of having that reputation,” Kinkel says.

Still other students think the binge-drinking phenomenon is here to stay and that efforts to address it will meet with frustration. “Pretty much everyone I know makes a joke out of education efforts,” says the junior environmental sciences major. “Students don’t want some old boring person sitting in an office somewhere telling them how much drinking they can handle. I’m not saying that these campaigns should stop, but people aren’t going to not drink because a sign they read in the cafeteria says it’s bad.”

For all its pessimism, that assessment neatly distills the challenge facing universities across the country. As Krauss reiterates, education efforts are useful, but they won’t solve the problem. An anti-drinking campaign may influence some students, but others will still make bad choices. After all, says Krauss, “You cannot control people’s behavior.”

But, as the University works to make undergraduate studies more rigorous, administrators hope to see student priorities shift to a clear focus on academics. Kinkel, for one, thinks that approach may work. “You just can’t make it through in four years here if you’re partying all the time.”

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