Back to school: college drinking concerns

tapsIt was recently reported that the University of New Hampshire is considering offering an amnesty program for underage students caught drinking on campus, in an effort to reduce alcohol related injury on school grounds. Those who support the program say students are drinking anyway, if the fear of suspension is removed they may be less inclined to be left alone when drunk, thereby reducing the risk of injury.

Researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston disagree. A recently released study by the Children’s Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research (CeASAR) shows colleges with strictly enforced alcohol policies have fewer cases of underage drinking and dangerous binge drinking.

Many young people are currently gearing up for an upcoming year at college. While at school it’s almost inevitable they’ll find themselves in a situation where alcohol is readily available. Even though peer pressure is a driving force among many young people who use alcohol, it’s not an all encompassing force. The following is a piece written by Emily Fenn, a college student working hard to help educate her fellow students about the dangers of binge drinking, using information she learned from Children’s Hospital’s research.

When I first arrived at college, I was excited by all the possibilities that lay ahead. But I had only been at college for a few months when one of my classmates died from alcohol poisoning; a tragic and preventable death that served as a reminder about how quickly those possibilities can be taken away.

The boy, just 18 years old, was rushing a fraternity and had been drinking at a party a few blocks off campus. He got very drunk and was taken upstairs to “sleep it off.” Unfortunately he never woke up. A few hours later fraternity members found him and called police, but it was too late.

His death was hard for me to process and raised a lot of questions about what I thought I knew about college life. Why did he feel the need to drink so much? Why didn’t anyone get help sooner? Where was campus safety or the police in any of this? Having actively participated in SADD (students against destructive decisions), and other alcohol awareness programs in high school, suddenly finding myself on a campus that clearly had a campus-wide alcohol problem was troubling.

But when I thought back to the Freshman Alcohol Policy Orientation my classmates and I received our first week of school, the pervasive drinking culture at the school made sense.

Emily Fenn
Emily Fenn

“We know that you all drink, we’re not stupid,” said the campus police officer in his opening speech discussing the school’s alcohol policies. “This is college, you have newfound freedoms and lots of free time, so it’s bound to happen. The problem we have is when you go out, get drunk and act foolishly. If you don’t cause problems, then we won’t have a problem with you.”

The “don’t bother us, we won’t bother you” speech from campus safety was complimented by an equally lax alcohol education course. We quickly read through a small amount of data, watched a poorly produced video of actors portraying college drinkers and then answered some easy questions about what we “learned.”

But after my classmates’ death I thought for sure parents, law enforcement and university staff would take underage drinking more seriously. I was wrong. Time passed and no one rose to the challenge; I was devastated that there had been no real measures to address or talk about what had happened.

At the time I was involved in a campus leadership program and decided to take matters into my own hands. I signed up for a public meeting with university faculty and advisors to discuss my concerns and hear how the school’s president planned to address the school’s underage drinking problem. As the day of the meeting got closer I was excited to be a part of positive change for the university, but shortly before it was scheduled to take place I received an email saying the meeting was canceled due to lack of student interest. I was promised the meeting would be rescheduled but months went by and I heard nothing more from college representatives on the subject.

I was discouraged, but determined not to turn a blind eye to what I saw as a very real problem at my school. I looked for proof to validate my claims and enlisted my mother to help. In her research my mother came across research from Children’s Hospital Boston that proved what I had believed to be true: campuses that actively enforce their alcohol laws report far fewer cases of assault, property damage and other crimes and/or accidents associated with drinking. It was exactly what I had been looking for, and I couldn’t have agreed more with findings.

In many cases alcohol has been reported to be a contributing factor in the increase of these categories.
Alcohol has been reported to be a contributing factor to many deaths in each of these categories.

I don’t think a full-on ban on college parties is a practical solution. But I do feel it would be a good start for schools to provide students with more social opportunities centered on sober activities, as well as establishing clear expectations and consistent consequences for violating campus drinking policies.

With this in mind I recently contacted the president of my school, and expressed the concerns I had returning to a college where destructive behavior was so common. I included the research from the doctors at Children’s and was delighted when he got back to me the same day, explaining that he appreciated my thoughts and put me in contact with the vice president and dean of students. I’m scheduled to meet with the Dean of Students early in the semester to talk about how the student body and faculty can work together to make the school a safer place.

I know there is much work to be done, and it won’t be easy, but I’m encouraged by the school’s new willingness to try. I really believe we can prevent further injury and avoid more tragedy at my school. I also hope our efforts can inspire other students and administrators to realize they too can change things at their own colleges. If I’ve learned one thing from all this, it’s that pretending a problem doesn’t exist is almost as dangerous as the problem itself– once other college faculties and staff come to the same conclusion, I think all college campuses will be a lot safer.