What is Tech doing about student binge drinking?
by Beth Bottom
Colleges and universities nationwide are grappling with a rising trend of student alcohol abuse and its dangerous, sometimes deadly, consequences.
Skeptics may ask, "Hasn't drinking always been a part of college life?" But there's a difference between current and previous generations of college students, says Steve Clarke, coordinator of alcohol abuse prevention programs at Virginia Tech: "The biggest change is in the way people are drinking. They're drinking now just to get drunk."
The following article paints a portrait of binge drinking at Virginia Tech, and provides an update on how the university is handling the culture of drinking among students.
A group of college students somehow manages to hear this announcement over the electric wails being emitted from a nearby speaker. They hail the server to their table, strewn with empty shot glasses, bottles, and pitchers, and order one more round. They have collectively decided to close down the bar before moving on to a friend's apartment to continue the party until either dawn, loss of consciousness, or "worshipping of the porcelain goddess" calls a halt to their festivities. These students have consumed at least three drinks each during the course of the evening.
Such a scenario is typical of college students across America and frequently leads to binge drinking, which constitutes consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in one sitting. In an alcohol and drug survey conducted by the CORE Institute in 1998 at Virginia Tech, 55 percent of students said they had binged at least once in the previous two weeks. Sixty-eight percent said they had experienced a hangover at least once in the last year; 61 percent had become nauseated or vomited from drinking too much; 44 percent said drinking had led them to do something they later regretted; 39 percent had suffered a memory loss from drinking; 38 percent said they had driven a car while under the influence; and 18 percent said they had been injured from a drinking-related incident.
Tech students' predisposition to drink parallels trends at other American college campuses, according to a 1997 Harvard study. Why is student drinking on the rise, particularly when the adverse effects of drinking are no mystery to students? Common responses from students surveyed include:
"To get drunk."
"As a reward for working hard."
"To get away from my problems."
"To feel more comfortable with the opposite sex."
"Because everyone else is drinking."
"To fit in with my friends."
Brent Bowman (electrical engineering '99), who occasionally drank as a student but doesn't engage in it anymore, said, "I enjoyed it. Drinking is like taking off the chains. It made me feel free from the day-to-day worries and stresses like work and studies." Bowman added that drinking diminishes normal inhibitions like nervousness and shyness, thus allowing the drinker to say or do things that he or she would normally be afraid to do.
A former dormitory resident advisor, who wishes to remain anonymous, commented that, based on his observations, excessive drinking diminishes after the freshman year. But for new college students, the reinforcement they receive from their peers is their motivation for heavy drinking: "You walk into class and ask friends what they did last weekend, and they say, 'I got drunk with my friends. It was so cool.' " This reinforcement, coupled with lack of punishment, makes it difficult for freshmen not to drink, said the resident advisor.Drinking problems are more serious now on a national level because of the increasing number of students on campus who drive vehicles. Virginia Tech has implemented programs to curb drinking and drinking-related accidents. For example, Tech's Center for Applied Behavior Systems and Students Against Destructive Decisions recently coordinated the "Don't Kill Kenny! Support Designated Drivers!" campaign. Named after a character from the popular animated series South Park, this project aimed to increase
|For new college students, the reinforcement they receive from their peers is their motivation for heavy drinking: "You walk into class and ask friends what they did last weekend, and they say, 'I got drunk with my friends. It was so cool.' "|
Although prevention programs create an awareness of the hazards of driving under the influence, and often do help decrease drunk driving, these programs have not yet significantly infiltrated the core of the problem: students' desire to drink. The challenge remains for students, faculty members, administrators, parents, and communities to help students find a different outlet than the bottle for dealing with the complex issues that face them.
Three Virginia Tech students dead in one weekend, all caused by excessive alcohol consumption. News media throughout Virginia carried the stories.
Two of the deaths resulted from one accident, a head-on collision between cars driven by Tech students, one who had just finished thrusting a beer-barrel spout into his mouth to guzzle the contents, the other a teetotalling Ph.D. student driving home after shopping for a gift for her soon-to-be-born grandchild. The third Tech student to die that weekend in 1997 slid off her bed and through an eighth-floor window of Slusher Hall. A sophomore, she had been drinking at a party before returning to her room.
The news shocked and saddened all who heard it and spurred both state officials and Tech administrators to action.
Although Tech already had one of the commonwealth's most stringent policies on student alcohol consumption, administrators determined that the university clearly had to do more to ensure the safety of its students. At the same time in Richmond, reacting to the deaths of the Tech students and the alcohol-related deaths of three students at three other Virginia universities, Attorney General Richard Cullen formed and headed a statewide task force on college drinking.
The task force, later led by Attorney General Mark L. Earley, last year issued 56 recommendations to address the problem, some of which Tech had already independently implemented by the time they were issued. Like other colleges and universities throughout the commonwealth, Tech developed a plan of action, which was required by the task force. The board of visitors approved the plan in November 1998.
New approaches to the problem included distributing over 4,000 copies of "Alcohol 101," an interactive CD-ROM developed by the University of Illinois in cooperation with The Century Council; showing first-year students attending orientation a newly developed video that includes alcohol issues; providing additional hours of alcohol-free activities for students, especially on Thursday and Friday nights when college students frequent local bars in greater numbers; and extending the weekend hours of Squires Student Center and McComas Hall, which provide facilities for fitness training and recreational activities. The university also created a new position, coordinator of alcohol abuse prevention programs, and filled it with Steve Clarke, a senior research associate in the psychology department who had spent 10 years conducting research on college drinking.
Tech's alcohol policy incorporates Virginia law, which prohibits drinking under the age of 21, being drunk in public, driving drunk, buying alcohol for anyone under 21, selling alcohol without a license, and selling alcohol to anyone who is intoxicated. The policy also prohibits drunken students from disturbing someone else's ability to sleep, study, or live peacefully and from hurting or endangering themselves or others.
Sanctions for violating the policy can be severe. Students found guilty of an alcohol offense that does not affect anyone's health, safety, or welfare can receive probation for a first offense, deferred suspension for a second offense, and suspension for a third offense. If the offense threatens anyone's health, safety, or welfare, including that of the drunken student, he or she likely will receive deferred suspension for a first offense, suspension for a second offense, and permanent dismissal for a third offense. Greek organizations that violate the policy receive social probation for a semester, which means that they cannot hold any social events during that period.
The university beefed up other sanctions as well. Beginning in January 1999 the university's judicial process began including off-campus alcohol violations resulting in summons or arrest, meaning that a student arrested or issued a summons off campus for alcohol-related offenses faces the same judicial action as those violating the policy on campus. At the same time, the university began notifying parents of students under the age of 21 whenever their children receive a sanction of deferred suspension, suspension, or dismissal.
Spring semester also brought a new alcohol education class--five one-and-a-half-hour sessions with homework. Clarke developed the class, which he teaches with Carolyn Penn, director of health education. The class is mandatory for any student who has a major alcohol violation, and each participant must pay a $100 fee.
During the summer Clarke worked on a new media campaign which began in the fall 1999 semester. "It uses positive social norms to reduce the myths about student alcohol consumption," he said. "Students greatly overestimate the percentage of students who consume alcohol, the number of times per week they consume alcohol, and the amount they consume. Part of the escalation in drinking has to do with this idea. If they understand the numbers, it reduces the marginalization."
Will the tougher policy and additional programs reduce the upward spiral of binge drinking by students? Vice President for Student Affairs Landrum L. Cross, who oversees the effort, believes they will, but the process will not be easy. "The drinking problem is bigger than our campus," Cross observed. "The extent to which it exists in our society makes it difficult for us to make as much progress as we would like to make. But we're being guided by some of the best national literature on what works and what doesn't work. I think we can have an impact."