Midstate colleges, universities take aim at underage drinking

2013-09-26T22:00:00Z 2013-09-29T10:31:57Z Midstate colleges, universities take aim at underage drinkingBy Naomi Creason, The Sentinel and Chris Palmer, The Philadelphia Inquirer The Sentinel

For many Pennsylvania colleges, cutting back on underage drinking problems means cutting out some of the popular opportunities for such drinking to happen.

Local universities and colleges, however, don’t have many of the events and annual activities that would give students a chance to take part and potentially get in trouble with college and local police. For these local institutions, prevention comes in the form of programs and, of course, education.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board recently awarded Shippensburg University a $40,000 grant, which will be used to continue and improve its efforts to prevent underage drinking at the university. The grant was one of 61 given to municipalities, community groups, schools, universities and law enforcement agencies to prevent underage alcohol consumption.

“The PLCB grants help fund prevention programs focused on underage and college-age alcohol consumption,” said Sarah McDowell, interim director of the university’s Connection Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) program. “SU was one of 20 colleges and universities — one of eight PASSHE schools — chosen to receive the grant. There were 115 applications this year and 61 recipients of the grant.”

Shippensburg’s Connection program has been in existence since 1998 and has provided education and intervention to college students who are dealing with personal issues or legal/policy violations regarding alcohol and/or drug use, McDowell said.

Through the program, the funds will be awarded over two years and will be used to support the implementation of AlcoholEdu, an online education course.

“AlcoholEdu will be used to reach nearly every incoming student with personalized education about alcohol, social norms, high risk versus low risk drinking, potential consequences associated with personal choices, as well as campus support services available to them,” McDowell said.

At Dickinson College in Carlisle, Joyce Bylander, vice president for student development, said the college also relies on education to help prevent underage drinking.

Like Shippensburg, Dickinson College also has the online course, AlcoholEdu, which every incoming first-year student must take before orientation. During orientation, education and discussions continue in smaller groups during floor meetings with resident advisers, Bylander said.

Bylander said Dickinson also continually looks at how it can improve how it tackles underage drinking.

“An Alcohol Working Group reviews, revises and continually adjusts the college’s approach to student education and services aimed at addressing and preventing problematic drinking,” she said. “The college also works with its on-campus partners, such as student organizations, to collaborate in education efforts and to uphold college policies and state and federal laws.”

Bylander said examples include using research from a Dickinson psychology professor to develop new approaches and preventions and to target efforts toward at-risk groups. The college also provides counseling to students within 72 hours of an alcohol-related hospital visit.

School events

Elsewhere in the state, the target for some colleges and universities are the school events that have become synonymous with drinking.

House Party at Bucknell University was a springtime rite of passage for decades of students, a weekend of live outdoor music, grilled food, and a festival atmosphere on campus.

But the weekend was also known as a hazy few days of debauchery. Among the tamer pastimes: shots, beer pong, daytime boxed wine, sometimes all three.

While the tradition of House Party appeared sacred on Bucknell’s campus, university president John Bravman canceled the event in August, joining a growing band of officials across the state taking action against alcohol abuse.

In a letter to the campus community announcing his decision, Bravman reported that 15 students at last spring’s House Party were hospitalized with blood alcohol levels topping 0.239 — nearly three times the legal definition for drunken driving — including two with levels more than 0.30.

“Quite frankly, it was a disaster from my point of view,” he said in a recent interview. “I just can’t believe that anyone would actually argue that this has a mission purpose for this university.”

Within the past year, several colleges and college towns in Pennsylvania have employed new measures in attempts to reduce the potential for alcohol-infused chaos.

Earlier this month, for example, Temple University canceled its annual Spring Fling, a decades-old event originally designed to unite what was once a commuter school.

Stephanie Ives, Temple’s dean of students, said in an interview that in recent years, many students — a larger percentage of whom now live on or near campus — had turned Spring Fling into “an opportunity to skip class and drink,” and that “our academic mission was being undermined” by the behavior.

Student health was also a major concern, Ives said.

This year, a female student visiting Temple in the days surrounding Spring Fling died after falling from a rooftop party. Witnesses said that she fell while posing for a photo and that it was clearly accidental.

Elsewhere, during the winter, West Chester Borough Council approved the installation of “quiet zone” signs tacitly directed at students wandering home from bars.

Last spring, Pennsylvania State University paid 34 State College bars and restaurants more than $167,000 to abstain from serving alcohol to anyone during the student-organized “State Patty’s Day.”

And at the University of Pennsylvania, a task force staffed by a variety of university officials is working on a yearlong evaluation of the school’s alcohol and safety policies.

Officials at each of these schools acknowledge that excessive drinking in college is no new phenomenon and that it is not likely to disappear any time soon.

But several figures suggest the percentage of students who binge drink has decreased in recent years. According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 44 percent of college students in 2002 had been “binge drinking” (consuming five or more drinks on the same occasion) within the last month, but in 2012, figures show, that number was about 40 percent.

Aaron White, who studies college and underage drinking at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said, however, there are a few other important factors, including a 25 percent rise in overdoses solely related to alcohol, and a 76 percent rise in overdoses involving alcohol and other drugs, between 1999 and 2008.

He also cited his 2006 study of about 10,000 college freshmen. It found that approximately 45 percent of the males had participated in binge drinking, and about a quarter of that group consumed 15 drinks or more.

“The binge drinking measurement is a threshold,” White said. “It doesn’t tell you a thing (about) what happens when people go above that threshold.”

That dangerous level of consumption is what ultimately convinced Bucknell’s Bravman that House Party was no longer a suitable university event.

While canceling a treasured school tradition hasn’t made everyone happy, Bravman said a majority of the feedback has been positive. For anyone who disagreed, he said, he simply asked a pointed question.

“I’ve challenged students to tell me, ‘What would you have me do?’ “ he said. “How would you view it if you were in my chair?”

Copyright 2014 The Sentinel. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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