Drinking to get drunk
National statistics show rise in student binge drinking, AU admin concerned
Excessive alcohol consumption is a problem that continues to plague college campuses today, despite attempts to curtail it through broad-level restrictions. At AU, where a no-tolerance alcohol ban in residence halls has been in effect since the mid-1980s, ongoing debate about the effectiveness of such a restriction persists.
According to campus administrators and students, the issues related to excessive alcohol consumption are not problems that can be solved by the work of one group or the other.
The problem, it seems, is that too many students are getting involved in drinking (and even the use of more serious and illegal drugs) at earlier ages, according to Faith Leonard, dean of students in the Office of Campus Life. Some are starting to show these behaviors at age 15 and "that's scary," she said.
The debate about underage alcohol consumption is a hot one, particularly because federal law sets the legal drinking age at 21.
"Most people [in the residence halls] are not 21 anyway," Hannah Wu, Anderson Hall resident director, said. "But I think a lot of students, when they come here, [drinking] is part of the collegiate way."
This past winter, Middlebury College President Emeritus Dr. John McCardell shook up the debate about collegiate drinking. As previously reported by The Eagle, McCardell has started a grassroots effort to get the national drinking age lowered to 18.
"That approach addresses only one aspect of the much larger problem of high risk drinking among adolescents and young adults that begins at ages well before 18," Leonard said.
At AU, just as at many campuses across the country, statistics show an alarming new rate of students who take the "collegiate way" to the extreme.
"Too many students can't drink responsibly," Nick Johnson, director of the Student Advocacy Center and a senior in the School of Public Affairs, said. "At a school where we are trying to promote academics and scholarship, I don't think it would be wise to promote a wet campus."
Some students said they think the dry policy causes students to be unsafe in their drinking habits.
"I think it makes people be more secretive," Brittany Grow, a senior in the SPA and a Class of 2007 senator, said. "Because it's a dry campus, I feel like the campus is not as aware of the repercussions of drinking."
But in the face of new numbers that show collegiate drinking habits on the rise, is there a better solution than limits on alcohol consumption at AU?
A long-standing policy
In the years preceding the dry campus decision in the 1980s, alcohol had been widely available to students of age on campus, and alcohol was permitted in the dorms. But in the summer of 1984, Congress passed a law that raised the national drinking age from 18 to 21.
That same year, according to an Eagle article from Sept. 14, 1984, a freshman died after falling from the roof of a Letts Hall study lounge. While administrators refused to say whether this event triggered the policy shift, not long after the incident, they took action and decided to re-examine the school's alcohol policy.
Since then, the university policy has outlined specific guidelines for the consumption of alcohol on campus: no drinking in the residence halls. Drinking at school-related functions or in school facilities is only permitted, according the student handbook, with the consent of the appropriate administrative official.
"If you look at the policy, it's reasonable," Gail Hanson, vice president of Campus Life, said. "It sets conditions for responsible drinking."
Leonard said she fully supports the dry campus policy as well.
"AU's approach works on as many fronts as possible," Leonard said.
And yet, there are limits to how strict alcohol restrictions on campus actually are.
"We're not really a dry campus," Rick Treter, director of Residence Life for Housing and Dining Programs, said. "Since I have been at American University, we have had dry residence halls. But that doesn't seem to stop underage students from drinking."
According to Treter, incident report forms, which residence hall staff members are required to fill out for any violation of university policy, reflect a notable number of alcohol-related incidents in residence halls.
In Housing and Dining's annual analysis of these report forms, it found that in October 2006, 9 percent of all reported incidents were related to alcohol. That figure is only down slightly from past years, but as a whole, fewer incident report forms were filed in 2006 than previously.
This means that underage students who drink in residence halls are violating both university code and District of Columbia law.
Treter said he believes the dry campus policy is the best way to control how everyone drinks on campus.
"With a dry campus policy, you don't have to wonder about any legality," he said in regards to legal drinking age. "There is no alcohol allowed on campus. Period."
Some students argue that by making drinking illegal for everyone on campus, the administration is ignoring the fact that underage drinking is still pervasive around campus and across the country.
"If you make something taboo, people will seek it out regardless," Andrew Engel, a sophomore in the School of International Service, said.
The dry campus policy ignores the fact that underage students would still find a way to drink, Engel said.
"This is all so symptomatic of society as a whole," he said.
But others said the policy did not affect a student's decision to drink in the dorms or not.
The "dry campus is not a factor in terms of [a student's] decision to drink or not drink," said Madeleine Beebe, a senior in SIS. "The concern is that they are drinking illegally, not breaking dry campus rules."
Associate Dean of Students Sara Waldron also said students' drinking habits may not be based on campus rules.
"I know that 26 percent of AU students don't drink at all and that's by choice," she said. "Students will drink or not drink either way. ... Just because it's dry doesn't prevent it. Alcohol is readily available."
According to Waldron, this nonchalant, yet secretive attitude toward on- and off-campus drinking has become part of a disturbing new national trend.
"They call it extreme drinking," she said.
More and more students are taking part in drinking larger amounts of hard liquor in short periods of time, she said. As opposed to the four or five drinks associated with binge drinking, extreme drinking raises the level to eight or nine drinks.
"This is becoming an epidemic; it's a new public health crisis," she said. "Students are going out to get drunk. But how drunk is drunk enough?"
Nationwide trends hit AU
According to Leonard, some figures in higher education indeed are characterizing college students' use of alcohol as a public health emergency.
In a 2005 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University published last month, researchers found that excessive binge drinking is on the rise nationally. Excessive binge drinking, which is binge drinking that occurs three or more times a week, has seen a jump from 19.7 percent in 1993 to 22.8 percent in 2001.
The percentage of America's 5.4 million full-time college students who drink has remained virtually unchanged at 70 percent in 1993 (the last year the survey was conducted) as compared to 68 percent in 2005.
According to the Center's president, Joseph Califano, school administrators are not doing enough to turn the tides of excessive consumption.
"College presidents, deans and trustees have facilitated a college culture of alcohol and drug abuse," he said in a published statement. "School administrators and trustees must step up to the plate."
Leonard said it's doubly hard for students who "grow up in a society with permissive alcohol ideas."
In the Core Alcohol and Drug Survey, last administered on AU's campus in February 2005, a sample of 670 students responded. The sample, according to Leonard, was "a good microcosm of AU students" in terms of race, ethnicity and gender. In total, the percentage of AU students who drank was higher than the national average, with 78.5 percent of the respondents saying they had tried alcohol once. National Core Survey data shows that nationally, 72 percent of students have tried alcohol once.
The survey found that students perceive drinking among their peers as more common than it actually is. Students said they believe that of students who drink, only 29 percent drink once a week or less. In reality, 61 percent drink once a week or less.
In the past, excessive alcohol consumption has been related primarily to men, but the Core survey showed that women are catching up and sometimes matching consumption numbers.
That's why policies are constantly evolving, as school officials figure out ways to reverse the national trend.
"We're constantly looking for new strategies," Leonard said.
Leonard said that in the years since the dry campus policy was instated, the overall quality of life for resident hall students has increased.
"One of the biggest changes was the decrease in vandalism," she said.
But some current students argue that destructive behavior by students who drink persists and is a major issue.
Vandalism has become a major concern for resident life staff, including one resident assistant who said, "No matter where [students] are drinking, they'll still vandalize."
According to Ethan Hicks, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and an RA on Centennial 6, RAs "have to deal with vandalism all the time."
"I believe much of it is a side effect of alcohol consumption," he said.
While Hicks said he supported relaxing current dry-campus rules, he acknowledged that with or with out the policy, students would still drink and RAs would still have to report the incidents.
According to the October 2006 study by Housing and Dining, besides noise violations and facilities issues, vandalism was the next most reported incident. "I'd say that [the majority] of vandalism comes from drunken behavior," Hicks said.
Hicks also said that some of the noise issues could also be attributed to students who drink.
In the Core survey, 35 percent of respondents said other students' drinking "messed up their living space," while 40 percent acknowledged that others' drinking habits interrupted their studying.
The wild behavior of some students can lead to more serious consequences. According to Waldron, medical transport numbers are at their highest point this year than they have ever been since she came to the school six years ago. Waldron said a total of 38 medical transports had happened since the beginning of the fall 2006 semester and April 9, The Eagle previously reported. She mentioned that in years past, the highest total number was 35 transports.
"I would say that of all the transports, there's a handful, maybe five, so far that have reported that they were drinking in the residence halls," she said. Students are reporting "that they have been drinking off campus" predominantly, Waldron said.
Affecting the community
Drinking would happen regardless of whether there was a dry or wet campus, Treter said.
"Dry or wet, I think our students are going to go out into the community and they're going to drink too much," Treter said.
Grow said the lack of permissible on-campus drinking affects AU's sense of community.
"People of age can't come to campus to party, and neither can anyone underage," Grow said. "We just don't have anything like [a wet] Tavern that would foster a sense of community anymore."
This lack of community on campus is one reason that some students said house parties off campus are a popular destination for people looking to drink and have fun.
"Because it's a dry campus, I feel like people expect us to have parties," said Grow, 21, who lives in a house off campus.
Megan Kania, a senior in SPA, said having a dry campus doesn't do much to deter students from drinking.
"A dry campus takes responsibility away from campus," she said. "It just sends [students] elsewhere and it doesn't deter people from drinking."
Kania, 21, also said many students she doesn't even know will oftentimes show up to parties at her off-campus house and crowd the rest of the guests out. This leads to neighbor complaints.
Waldron said complaints about such off-campus parties are reported to the university periodically throughout the semester.
"Last semester, we had 10 formal complaints about houses off-campus," she said.
Complaints were filed by neighbors who, according to Waldron, are concerned not with underage drinking but rather with noise.
Often times, neighbors complain that students are trespassing into yards, where they will urinate or vomit on the landscape, according to Waldron.
Many believe that Greek system houses are the ones to be blamed for raucous parties, but as Waldron said, "It's a mix of Greek life and not. Of the 10 incidents last semester, I can [unofficially] count three as affiliated with the Greek system."
Greek life is not the only group of students who like to drink, according to some students.
"Everyone likes to party, not just Greek life," said Leah Moriarty, a sophomore in CAS.
In addition to police intervention and the efforts of Public Safety, area liquor stores do their part to prevent underage drinkers from taking part in destructive activity.
"Young kids are trying almost anything," said Andy Min, the owner of Tenley Mini Market. "If young kids bring fake IDs, we have a very good eye."
It's more than just off-campus parties that disrupt campus life, according to Hanson.
"Disturbing the peace, using Public Safety time and medical resources: any number of these things affects the community," she said.
Changes in order
Changing the way students drink is something with which college communities around the country continue to grapple.
"It's half about enforcement and the other half about teaching students to drink responsibly," Treter said.
In addition to the health concerns surrounding excessive consumption, there are numbers that show sexual assault against women happens more frequently when alcohol is involved.
"I don't think students consider that," Waldron said.
"There are negative consequences for academics as well," she said. "More and more, I see students throw away their potential on alcohol."
Finding a way to make a change in students' mindsets is difficult.
"If being publicly drunk was unacceptable [behavior] to students, then people wouldn't do it," Hanson said. "We are constantly thinking about how we can make this a safer drinking environment."
According to Johnson, the first comprehensive overhaul of the student conduct code since 1999 occurred this academic year, with expanded definitions regarding disorderly conduct and the addition of sexual misconduct and sexual assault to the code as well. These policy changes reflect a more rigid anti-alcohol policy, as it aims to toughen rules surrounding what is commonly perceived as drunken behavior.
Additionally, according to Leonard, it is likely that changes to the alcohol policy will extend to empty containers as well. Any students displaying empty alcohol containers will be subjected to judicial review if discovered by university staff, she said.
"There are lots of other ways to decorate a room," Leonard said.
Yet, there are still questions and concerns, mainly for students who said there is no way to deny that students will drink. But for university officials, changing the way that kids drink alcohol is a matter of figuring out how to change the collegiate mindset.
"Nationally, no one is coming up with a silver bullet," Leonard said. "It makes us ask every day: what are you doing about these issues"