Quandary for colleges: how to battle binge drinking

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As Lynn Gordon "Gordie" Bailey Jr. prepared for his freshman year at the University of Colorado last fall, his parents gave him the usual warnings about alcohol - be careful, don't ever drink and drive.

They didn't mention the warning that drinking too much at one sitting could prove fatal.

"That's not even in your realm of thinking," recalls his stepfather, Michael Lanahan. "If it had been, we would have talked about it, and we didn't." [Editor's note: In the original version, Lanahan's name was misspelled.]

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For its part, the university did give advice about alcohol poisoning to Mr. Bailey through an online program required of all freshmen. In addition, strict new rules at the school allowed administrators to suspend students after just two alcohol-related rules violations.

None of this, however, prevented fraternity members from hazing Bailey on Sept. 16 with an initiation ritual that reportedly required him to down gallons of wine and liquor.

By the next morning, he had died, the level of alcohol in his blood more than three times the legal limit for driving in many states.

Now, Bailey's family are asking tougher questions aimed at the university's policies, joining other parents and students appalled by a recent spate of fatal alcohol overdoses around the country.

College administrators, meanwhile, are torn about what to do.

"We want people to be free, but we also want to keep them from hurting themselves," says Aaron White, an assistant research professor of psychology at Duke University who studies alcohol use on campus.

Despite education programs and tougher rules on some campuses, there is evidence that patterns of alcohol abuse have shifted in recent years - and not for the better.

Surveys suggest more than 8 in 10 college students drink, with half of those regularly engaging in "binge drinking" - downing so much alcohol that they become intoxicated.

"We have a younger generation that is drinking much differently than the generation I belonged to," says Mr. Lanahan, a Dallas real-estate developer who graduated from college in 1968. "They're drinking with a purpose, and the purpose is to get drunk."

Indeed, while the number of college-age heavy drinkers has stayed stable for the last several years, research suggests that they're drinking more on average.

Since last September, students at Colorado State University and the University of Oklahoma have also died from apparent alcohol poisoning.

"Alcohol use on campus is nothing new. What seems to be new is drinking to the point of directly dying from alcohol use," says Mr. White. He helped develop an online alcohol-education program called AlcoholEdu, which is now in use at about 350 colleges. At the University of Colorado at Boulder and other schools, students must log onto a website, sit through a three-hour presentation, and pass a test before beginning their freshman year.

White acknowledges that education efforts go only so far, and he says they're ineffective in many cases.

"Simply telling students that they'll kill brain cells if they drink too much, for example, is not an effective way to prevent excessive drinking," agrees Mark Goldman, associate director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Part of the problem is the lack of research into the best prevention strategies. The studies on college drinking that do exist are "relatively new, and the data are incomplete," according to Mr. Goldman, who adds that many administrators become "demoralized" after their approaches fail to reduce problems.

Students aren't sure of the best strategies either. "There has to be some sort of generational shift away from feeling that getting super-drunk is a cool and fun thing to do," says Kent Green, news editor at the University of Colorado's student newspaper. "I don't know how you do that."

A small number of colleges have made themselves "dry" - banning alcohol use everywhere on campus, including dorms and pubs. Strict enforcement of alcohol rules also appears to be on the rise: The University of Oklahoma is emphasizing its three-strikes policy, which mandates suspension after the third time students are caught with alcohol.

The University of Colorado, which had been suspending about 30 students a year for alcohol violations, now only allows two strikes instead of three.

"It is actually very strict," says administrator Robert Maust, who oversees alcohol and drug abuse policies. "You could be suspended just for being in the presence of alcohol, even if everybody agrees it's not your alcohol and you weren't drinking."

Fraternities are also under heavy fire these days - not surprisingly, given the close link between the fraternity culture and alcohol abuse.

Fraternity house residents are twice as likely as other students to indulge in binge drinking, according to the Harvard School of Public Health's 2001 College Alcohol Study.

The death of Gordie Bailey was tied to a fraternity initiation rite, and the alcohol-related deaths of the students at Colorado State and at the University of Oklahoma occurred at fraternity houses.

Nationwide, about 30 colleges now ban alcohol in fraternity houses. Other schools have moved "rush" - the time when fraternities initiate new pledges - away from the fall, when freshmen are targeted immediately after entering school.

And some schools are also casting a wider net in seeking out those who facilitate alcohol abuse on or near campus. Some administrators are now putting pressure on liquor stores and bars where "ladies' nights" and happy-hour drink specials attract hordes of bargain-hunting students.

"When you look at the bars, they surround some schools," White says. "Where you have a lot of alcohol outlets and cheap drinks, that's usually the problem."

Faced with embarrassing public displays of drunkenness, the University of Colorado played hardball.

"When the bars used to offer drink specials at 7 a.m. on commencement morning, we had to sit down with them and say, 'You're really harming your universities, you're dumping drunks out at 8 a.m. who are staggering over to our stadium,' " Mr. Maust recalls.

The university bought advertising for the bars that agreed to stop the drink specials, and it sent complaint letters to the local beverage control board about the ones that didn't. According to Maust, the letters essentially said, "These are not good neighbors, and we want you to know that."

Under pressure, the bars have stopped the drink specials and some may close entirely on commencement morning, Maust says.

But letters to bars and two-strikes policies aren't enough for Lanahan, Bailey's stepfather.

Only a full assault on the alcohol "culture" on campus will prove genuinely effective in reducing the dangers of excessive drinking by students, he insists.

Parents can help too, he believes, in part at least by reminding schools that they are consumers who wield financial clout and that they have the power to either reward or punish schools for their degree of success - or failure - in handling alcohol problems. To that end, he has formed a foundation in his stepson's memory that aims to offer ratings of how colleges handle alcohol issues.

"You can't just react to these problems," he says. "You've got to be ahead of them, protecting kids leaving home, or else parents will vote to send them elsewhere."

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