[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
February 20 - 27, 1998


Last call

Should Worcester officals crack down on college drinking?

by Kristen Lombardi

[Holy Cross] Back when Mike Neagle, a Holy Cross senior, preferred soda to beer, he had an unsettling experience -- his first college party. Neagle was a freshman, an unseasoned drinker. And he fixated on the crowd of peers traipsing, sloppily, through a stranger's home.

"It was overwhelming, but I got over it," he recounts.

His weekends soon were bustling with parties in dorm rooms and off-campus houses, at which he gulped five, six, seven beers in the course of an evening.

Now that he's age 21, Neagle enjoys wine with dinner and mellow get-togethers, where he may sip on three beers all night.

"It's not such a big deal to drink anymore. I guess you mature, and with that you drink more responsibly," he explains.

For college students, Neagle's experience is typical. They arrive on campus, many with no knowledge of alcohol's dangers. Inevitably, those who drink, overstep limits and then get sick, suffer hangovers, even black out. Most learn to modify their use.

Thus it's hard to believe that Neagle's Holy Cross peers are now debating the merits of an alcohol ban. Or that Worcester is in the midst of a furor over college drinking. The September 29 drinking death of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology freshman, Scott Krueger, rammed the issue of college alcohol abuse into the local, even national spotlight.

Officials called for crackdowns. Colleges vowed to stiffen anti-drinking rules, or revisit existing policies. Acting Governor Paul Cellucci urged the state's 29 public colleges and universities to adopt a "zero-tolerance" policy toward underage drinking. Even the Worcester License Commission held a meeting with college representatives in January, then convened a 19-member task force to look into the problem.

But what really brought the issue to Worcester was the January 25 death of a Holy Cross sophomore, Gary Vander Veer. He had been fatally hit by a drunken-driver in the early morning hours. Once again, a young college student had perished because of alcohol.

Vander Veer's death appeared to further stoke local reaction. On January 28, the License Commission's police-investigations unit raided a Chandler Street bar and arrested four young women for possessing fake identifications. The commission has since sounded the call: All you college students with phony IDs, we will get you.

Stringent regulations ignore the fact that students drink responsibly, and a growing number don't at all. Seventy-six percent of WPI students, for instance, prefer not to hang around intoxicated classmates, and 35 percent favor substance-free activities.

ALCOHOL REPRESENTS a major problem on campus. A 1994 Harvard School of Public Health study found that 44 percent of students were "binge drinkers" -- in the two weeks before the survey, they had guzzled four or five drinks in an evening.

Effects of heavy consumption are grave. The study showed a link between alcohol and unprotected sex, assault, and rape -- not to mention waning academic performance.

"This is a public-health issue. There are harmful impacts to college drinking," says Sandra Hoover, coordinator of an American Medical Association initiative on college alcohol abuse.

In extreme situations, students die. Last September, University of Massachusetts/Amherst junior Adam Prentice dropped through a greenhouse roof and died of massive bleeding. It was discovered that Prentice had been inebriated when he fell.

Two days later, Scott Krueger drank so much at a Phi Gamma Delta fraternity event that he collapsed, then died of alcohol poisoning. His blood-alcohol content was determined to reach .41 percent, which is equal to consuming 16 beers or liquor shots in an hour.

The loss of a student who had just begun college -- at a prestigious institution -- thrust the issue into the spotlight. Newspapers offered banner headlines: BINGE DRINKING PLAGUES COLLEGES. Television reporters spoke of the crisis.

"It planted a seed among everyone," says Bernard Brown, Worcester Polytechnic Institute's vice-president of student affairs. If a death happened at MIT, college drinking must be severe.

Calls for crackdowns soon rang out. Cellucci asked all public institutions to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on underage drinking, prompting the Board of Higher Education to ban alcohol on campus. Attorney General Scott Harshbarger filed a bill to increase penalties for underage drinking.

In Worcester, administrators re-examined existing policies and sponsored campus forums. WPI even enacted new rules for social functions at fraternities and sororities.

But what hit Worcester hardest was the January 25 death of Vander Veer, a fair-haired athlete from New Jersey. A drunken-driver fatally struck Vander Veer as he walked along Cambridge Street at 2:30 a.m. He had been in the street because of icy sidewalks. Yet he was drinking at McGuire's Cafe before the accident, students say.

Whatever the circumstances, it was a doubly tragic situation. Vander Veer died and the driver, Scott Raskett, 21, faces charges of motor vehicle homicide while under the influence. The incident, it seems, fostered a sense of urgency among officials.

Three days later, the License Investigations unit raided Suney's, a college hotspot on Chandler Street, and arrested four minors for possessing fake identifications. In earlier inspections at Tim's Toolhouse on Millbury Street, three Holy Cross students were similarly charged. They face fines and a maximum of three months in prison.

"We're going after [minors]," says Jordan Levy, License Commission chairman. In two years, the commission's penalized 44 establishments for serving to minors. But, he adds, "It's unfair to just punish bar-owners when some hot-shot kid put them at risk."

Local furor has spawned a 19-member task force to review the problem. The group, which consists of city and college officials, will study drinking on- and off-campus, then report findings to the License Commission.

The task force met once so far, but press coverage suggests that officials aren't afraid to stiffen tactics. Levy's said phony IDs are a priority, warning of tougher enforcement. The group is expected to consider impacts of college nights at bars -- already prompting places to stop advertising the events.

"We're not going to eliminate underage drinking, but we will make it more difficult for [minors] to drink," Levy adds.

TRAGEDIES EVOKE strong reactions. And colleges and universities are smart to focus on existing alcohol policies, even implement new prevention programs.

But contrary to media hype, college drinking isn't worse than ever.

"I haven't seen an increase in drinking," says David Milstone, Clark University's associate dean of students for 12 years.

Studies show that students imbibe less nowadays. In 1993, University of California at Los Angeles surveyed 300,000 students nationwide and determined a frequent-drinker's average consumption was 13 drinks per week, down from 14.3 in 1982. Moderate drinkers reported having six drinks per week, down from 8.4.

The trend's played itself out locally as well. WPI, one of 140 campuses in Harvard's study, has witnessed a decrease. Sixty-six percent of WPI students drank last year, down from 73 in 1993. In four years, binge drinking has declined from 42 to 35 percent.

What has changed, simply put, is our forgiveness of risky behavior. The Harvard study led to more research on college alcohol abuse, thereby heightening awareness, inspiring prevention programs. This greater emphasis on abuse mirrors US society. We put warnings on labels, learn about the dangers of drugs early. Statistics show Americans today drink less beer, wine, and liquor than in 1975.

"Alcohol [use] has become a less-tolerated behavior," says Paul Joseph, Worcester State College's dean of student development.

So when a drinking death occurs on campus, officials often champion a politically correct solution -- prohibition. Cellucci's zero-tolerance policy was likely well-intentioned, but hardly practical for a state system with tens of thousands of students. College of the Holy Cross, with roughly 2000 students, is now realizing how unpopular a dry campus would be; two percent of its students supported a ban in recent polls.

"Zero-tolerance simplifies the problem," Milstone explains. "It's unrealistic to think of this in terms of supply and demand. You cannot cut off supply without addressing demand."

A 1990 Carnegie Foundation report found that when universities tightened anti-drinking rules, they were unlikely to see desired results. This isn't surprising, considering college students view drinking as a personal liberty. Ryan, a WPI sophomore, sums it up: "A ban infringes on people's rights [thus instigating] students to revolt more."

Last fall, hundreds of University of New Hampshire students began chanting Pigs, USA and UNH after police raided an off-campus party. Officers had to use pepper spray to break it up.

Sam Shover, substance-abuse coordinator at University of North Carolina/Wilmington, explains, "Young adults are testing boundaries, trying to make independent decisions. `Just Say No' doesn't work for them."

Most campuses won't erupt in violence, but crackdowns push drinking further underground, into off-campus apartments, fraternity basements. "Without alcohol on campus, students carefully hide their use," says Jackie Latino, Holy Cross's alcohol-education coordinator.

There are consequences to unchecked student drinking. Take Julia, a Clark freshman. She recalls the night she drank an "insane amount" of Southern Comfort, then woke up "feeling my whole body trembling." It proved so disturbing, she vowed not to drink again.

Although she's chosen sobriety, Julia sees no logic in stringent regulations, "Prohibition isn't the way to handle college drinking. Students will get around rules."

Besides, such tactics ignore the fact that students drink responsibly, and a growing number don't at all. Seventy-six percent of WPI students, for instance, prefer not to hang around intoxicated classmates, and 35 percent favor substance-free activities.

Even Worcester State opted not to uphold an absolute ban. WSC has, by far, the strictest sanctions. Administrators noticed that 90 percent of dorm violence was alcohol-related three years ago, so they forbade booze in residence halls. Now, Joseph says, when a student first gets caught with alcohol in his room, he's suspended for 48 hours.

It's been an effective measure. In three years, he says, damage to residence halls has dropped 20 percent, and last year, only one physical assault happened in a WSC dorm.

In spite of such impressive results, WSC didn't wipe out alcohol on campus. In passing its zero-tolerance policy, the Board of Higher Education specified exceptions -- one being a college pub. WSC chose not to shut down its popular spot, One Lancer Place.

"You need more than tight regulations to [address] college drinking," Joseph explains.

Socialization, for one, complicates the issue. Shover, the UNC coordinator, says Americans' propensity to "drink to get drunk" is unique. In Israel and Europe, adolescents learn to respect alcohol. They're introduced to it with meals, she says, and soon understand that "being drunk at the dinner table is unacceptable."

Adolescents here, however, learn from peers, who know little about potential dangers. More and more, students grow up drinking unsupervised in homes, even in the woods. Perhaps because of the older drinking age, Shover says, "we don't teach children to drink responsibly. Our society has formally said, `We're not going to deal with this.'"

Hence thrill-seeking habits around alcohol. Americans, after all, invented such things as the keg stand, beer bong, shot-guns.

College students admit these are fixtures in their social scene, even acknowledge a fast, furious manner to their drinking. But the behavior making headlines isn't rampant. "Students drink to get buzzed or wasted. But what happened at MIT is extreme," says Morgan, a Holy Cross senior.

Most often, hard-partying subcultures encourage it. The Harvard study surveyed 17,600 students and determined that 86 percent of fraternity members were binge drinkers, compared to 50 percent of other male students. Likewise, 80 percent of sorority members binge, as opposed to 39 percent of their female peers.

Staggering statistics have left fraternity and sorority members feeling under attack. WPI's 10 fraternities and two sororities declared a party moratorium after Krueger's death and penned rules for events. Now, security guards check IDs at parties, guests are limited.

But then, in an attempt to curb underage drinking, WPI administrators implemented more restrictions -- all concerning Greek organizations.

"We came up with policies and administrators crammed new ones down our throats," says Christopher, 22, a Sigma Phi Epsilon member. "Administrators say [drinking] is a campus-wide issue, but everything they do points in our direction."

Greek organizations recognize that alcohol threatens their survival. Some have mandated dry rushes, wiping out hazardous liquor-based initiations for pledges. Two national fraternities, Sigma Nu and Phi Delta Theta, ordered their houses to be alcohol-free by the year 2000. Phi Gamma Delta put its name on the list after Krueger's death.

Of course, it's foolish to think that wild, risky behavior only happens at frat parties. Students recount stories of slamming six-packs in dorm rooms, chugging vodka-and-Snapple concoctions en route to apartment parties, even sipping whiskey in campus hideaways.

"Binge drinking happens every weekend, in any place that's behind closed doors," Milstone says.

EVER SINCE THE 1994 Harvard study, colleges and universities have gotten better at alcohol education and prevention. They've hired full- or part-time counselors and sponsored student forums.

Some even offer sophisticated curricula. Take WPI's Healthy Alternatives Program, which aims to "empower students to become socially responsible." The four-year-old program provides alternatives to drinking, such as sports and Karaoke shows, and teaches courses on alcohol use.

"Students get in trouble in their leisure time. We're trying to change campus norms by teaching them how to use [the] time constructively," explains Mary Cox, WPI alcohol and drug counselor.

Similarly, Holy Cross holds student and faculty alcohol-abuse programs, Latino says. That agenda's been ongoing the past four years, but Holy Cross took further steps to combat drinking in 1996-97. A 30-member task force, consisting of students, staff and faculty, considered new strategies, such as altering the dormitory structure.

There's no magical cure-all for the problem, which is why outreach is important. Education, naturally, operates on the assumption that behavioral changes come as students acquire knowledge. But for young adults, the talking-head lecture isn't enough.

"If administrators incorporated students into the decision-making process, maybe students would be receptive," Christopher says.

This is exactly what the AMA national initiative, A Matter of Degree, has tried to do. Harvard's study inspired Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to funnel $8.6 million into a seven-year program to reduce college alcohol abuse. Six universities, and surrounding communities, were selected because of high binge-drinking rates.

"The approach is about changing environments," Hoover, the AMA coordinator, says. University-community coalitions will consider factors like liquor ads and ordinances. That students, administrators, and citizens are working to solve the problem is unusual, she says.

The License Commission's task force, a collaboration of city and school officials, seems a forward-moving step. The group will look at campus and city statistics on underage drinking to determine the problem's severity, members say, then come up with policy recommendations.

"We cannot be naïve and think that one task force will solve this complex problem," says Milstone, a member.

How effective the task force will be depends, frankly, on what it chooses to promote. The question isn't how to eradicate drinking, but how to help students in need -- by teaching responsible, respectful alcohol use.

Because, in Morgan's words, "Drinking on campus is a given. Some do it, some don't. But you will never see each and every student stop drinking just because of some ban."

Kristen Lombardi can be reached at klombardi@phx.com.

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