Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Impaired Judgment

The campus-drinking hysteria re-examined

By Jason Gay

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  It's a splendid Saturday morning in October, and the Boston College campus is buzzing. The school's football team is hosting one of its most dreaded rivals, the University of Miami, and though the kickoff isn't scheduled for another couple of hours, the area surrounding Alumni Stadium, in Chestnut Hill, is packed with people. The scent of burning charcoal fills the air. Men dressed head-to-toe in BC maroon and gold scarf down breakfasts of spicy Italian sausage. Pushcart vendors hawk cheap baseball caps and pennants. A parade of four-wheel-drive vehicles enters the parking lot, overflowing with supplies for a day of tailgate partying.

In the stadium's shadow, another pregame celebration is well under way. These are "mod parties," named for the famously raucous hamlet of scruffy, ranch-style modular houses that are home to many of BC's upperclassmen. Hundreds of barely awake students mill about the mod back yards. Music pumps from stereo speakers perched in windows: Notorious B.I.G., the Dave Matthews Band, Green Day. A bewildering strain of Toto.

Despite the hour, alcohol is everywhere. The students -- some of legal drinking age, some not -- are in full party mode. It's difficult to find someone without a beer can or plastic cup of spirits in hand. Bottles of whiskey and vodka make the rounds through the baseball-capped crowd. Coffee is spiked, orange juice is screwdriven. Piles of empties collect on picnic tables.

Lisa, an education major with brown eyes and auburn hair, plunks herself on her mod's back porch. Dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, she looks slightly rumpled and tired. The previous night, Lisa explains, she partied hard, tossing back eight or nine drinks over the course of the evening. She didn't get to bed until 5 a.m.

But here she is, less than six hours later, ready to party again -- and working on her third beer since waking up.

"I live for this," Lisa says. "I work all week, and I can't wait for the weekends."

Watching Lisa and her friends, it's hard to believe that Boston is in the midst of an unprecedented furor over college drinking. The September 29 drinking death of an MIT freshman, Scott Krueger, thrust the issue of college alcohol abuse into the local and national spotlight. The public was angry. Parents demanded answers. Newspaper articles screeched about "wasted lives." Even Dan Rather lamented a crisis of "binge drinking" on college campuses.

Calls for crackdowns came swiftly. College presidents pledged to stiffen their anti-drinking rules and harshly penalize offenders. Acting Governor Paul Cellucci urged the state's 29 public colleges and universities to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy toward underage drinking. Office of Consumer Affairs director Michael Duffy called a press conference to announce the bust of an underage MIT fraternity member for purchasing a single keg of beer. Even curmudgeonly Boston city councilor Albert (Dapper) O'Neil joined the mass condemnation.

"[Students] are here for an education," O'Neil barked. "Not for booze parties!"

More than a month after Krueger's death, the alarm over college drinking lingers. MIT is still wrestling with the tragedy. State higher education officials continue to endorse campuswide bans. Other colleges and universities around the city are reassessing their alcohol policies. Police are stepping up patrols in student-dominated neighborhoods.

But it's hardly stopped the booze partying. Whether at BC's mods, Boston University's dormitories, Harvard's final clubs, Emerson's off-campus apartments, or even MIT parties, alcohol continues to flow liberally through the social scenery of the metro area's 68 colleges and universities.

Why?

Because Boston's outcry over college drinking, though well-intentioned, has been misguided and unrealistic. It has virtually ignored the fact that many students drink responsibly, and a growing number don't drink at all. Worse, critics have been too reliant on strong-arm tactics that are both ineffective and dangerous.

It's time for a dose of reality. School administrators, journalists, and politicians -- and the public at large -- have to accept that alcohol won't disappear from college life. Stricter codes of conduct aren't enough to change ingrained behavior, no matter how many tragedies occur. Students are masters at defying rules. (Memo to BC: your keg ban doesn't work. Students hide kegs in hollowed-out plaster walls.)

Rather than tough talk and hyperbole, what's needed is a candid, cooperative conversation about the impact and dangers of college drinking. It must involve the city's community of students, university officials, law enforcement officers, and surrounding neighborhoods. And it should push for an education-based, peer-driven approach to changing the college drinking culture. The goal: stopping student alcohol abuse, not banning booze altogether.

After all, college students are going to drink. But they shouldn't drink so much that they harm themselves or others.

And they shouldn't ever die.

Though some may overstate the case, there's little doubt that alcohol represents an enormous problem on campus. A 1994 Harvard study found that 44 percent of American college students were "binge drinkers" -- meaning that within the two weeks prior to the survey, they had consumed four or five drinks consecutively over the course of an evening.

The fallout from such binging is immense. More than any other factor, alcohol contributes to student motor vehicle accidents, injuries, unsafe sex, unwanted sexual advances, and rape -- not to mention poor academic performance.

"It's a public-health issue, definitely," says Henry Wechsler, the Harvard School of Public Health lecturer who wrote the binge drinking study.

Occasionally, a student dies. In late August, Louisiana State University student Benjamin Wynne died of acute alcohol poisoning after consuming at least 25 drinks in a night of partying. His blood alcohol content (BAC) had reached a startling .60 percent. A few weeks later, five students died in a house fire at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Four were presumed to have been too drunk to escape.

UMass/Amherst junior Adam Prentice died of massive bleeding after falling through the glass roof of a greenhouse on September 27. A few days later, Prentice was determined to have been intoxicated when he fell.

But Scott Krueger's death, two days later hit the hardest. Krueger, a handsome, fair-haired MIT freshman from a Buffalo suburb, died of alcohol poisoning two days after collapsing during an event at the Phi Gamma Delta ("Fiji") fraternity, in the Fenway. His BAC was determined to have reached .41 percent, a level that can be achieved by consuming 16 beers or shots of liquor within one hour.

It's unclear whether Krueger was drinking on his own terms, or as part of a fraternity ritual. (A police investigation is ongoing; investigators have not ruled out bringing criminal charges against Fiji members, or MIT itself.)

Whatever the circumstances, the sudden loss of a bright student in his first month of college -- at one of the world's finest universities -- sent shock waves throughout Boston and the rest of the nation. You couldn't pick up a newspaper or turn on a television newscast without seeing Krueger's yearbook photo.

Prentice's drinking-related death at UMass stoked the local furor. Cellucci instructed members of the state's board of higher education to implement a zero-tolerance policy to combat underage drinking at other public colleges and universities -- or jeopardize their reappointment. (Not surprisingly, the board quickly passed the governor's recommendation.) Attorney General Scott Harshbarger filed a bill aimed at increasing penalties for underage drinking and buying alcohol for minors. The Boston City Council held its own meeting with representatives of various local colleges on October 9.

Local police, who traditionally step up drinking patrols when students return in September, promised even more vigilance. On October 13, the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC), joined by Cambridge and campus police, used a sting to bust an underage MIT fraternity member. His crime? Using a fake identification card to purchase a keg of beer.

The keg bust was breathlessly reported as the lead story on the six o'clock news that night. There was Consumer Affairs director Duffy -- who oversees the ABCC -- grimly talking about the confiscated keg as if it were an IRA arms cache. The next day, the Boston Herald trumpeted Duffy's seizure with a front-page story and a banner headline: KEG OF TROUBLE.

Of course, a strong reaction to the Scott Krueger tragedy was to be expected. His death was a cruel but important reminder of college drinking's hazardous side. Wisely, many institutions, in Boston and beyond, revisited their own alcohol policies and prevention programs.

But is college drinking worse than ever, as the recent hype might lead you to believe? No.

Overall beer, wine, and liquor consumption in America has declined over the past decade and a half; college drinking has mirrored that downward trend. A 1993 survey of 300,000 college students, conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles, found that average consumption for students who drink regularly had dropped to 13 drinks per week, down from 14.3 in 1982. Student who described themselves as light or moderate drinkers saw their average consumption dip to six drinks per week, down from 8.4.

The survey also found that a growing number of students barely drink at all. Nearly half the students surveyed abstained from even the occasional beer. In 1971, only one in four students did not drink, UCLA reported.

Walking around a Boston-area college on a Friday night, it can be hard to imagine that anyone is abstaining from alcohol. But even the police agree that the situation is not as bad as has been recently portrayed.

"It's actually gone down," says Boston Police Department spokesperson Margot Hill, a former Boston University campus cop. "Although high-profile incidents [like Krueger's death] make us think that the world is out of control, and drinking is out of control, it actually used to be much worse."

So what's changed? In a word, tolerance. Society is becoming less forgiving about drinking, especially abusive drinking (see "Is America in the Midst of Another Temperance Movement"). We've raised minimum drinking ages, put warnings on labels, instituted advertising bans. We better understand the potential dangers. Given what we know today about alcohol -- and given the damage that's already been done -- we're much less likely to excuse reckless behavior, even by college students.

Students, too, are less patient with alcohol abusers. They're getting sick of disturbances from noisy parties and obnoxious neighbors. They're tired of reading in the papers about arrested or injured classmates and alcohol-related campus crimes such as date rape.

Unfortunately, officials too often want to wipe the problem away by imposing restraints such as alcohol bans. This is a mistake. Cellucci's zero-tolerance push for state colleges may be politically correct, but it's a rash and unenforceable idea for a state college system with tens of thousands of students who are hardly going to quit drinking en masse. (More than 92 percent of UMass/Amherst students voted against the ban two weeks ago.)

"The quick and easy remedies do not work," says Dwight Heath, a Brown University anthropology professor who has studied the way various world cultures use alcohol. "After an incident, there is a flurry of ooohs and aaahs and some committee wants to ban parties and draw a dry radius around campus . . . but there cannot be any worse approach to drinking among adolescents than 'Just say no.' "

A 1990 Carnegie Foundation report found that when universities place more stringent regulations on drinking, those regulations are "not likely" to have the desired effects. Sometimes, students can become extremely unruly when institutions initiate strong crackdowns.

Last May, students at the University at Colorado at Boulder rioted after months of simmering tensions with city police over college drinking enforcement. More than 1500 people were involved in the melee. Similar riots occurred this fall at Colorado State, Michigan State, and the University of New Hampshire, where hundreds of students erupted in anger -- chanting "Pigs, USA, and UNH" -- after police tried to break up an off-campus party. Police were forced to use pepper spray and a police dog to disperse the crowd.

"If you go too far, you'll get a backlash," says David Musto, a professor of the history of medicine at Yale University who has examined American anti-alcohol movements.

To be sure, most campuses won't react violently to campus drinking crackdowns. But too often, strict rules drive student drinking deeper underground, into clandestine, unmonitored settings like dorm rooms, house parties, and fraternity basements. This is where abuse is most common -- where the goal often becomes to drink as much as possible in the shortest amount of time.

And that's when students are most at risk.

Sam, a 20-year-old junior at Tufts University, in Medford, was drinking illegally in a small group this fall when one of his friends drank too much too quickly and passed out. The friend started to vomit while lying on the ground, a clear sign of alcohol poisoning.

Though he was scared, Sam didn't think twice about calling the university's emergency number and having his friend taken to the infirmary, where he was stabilized.

But Sam admits that if there had been a zero-tolerance policy on campus, he might have hesitated to seek help.

"Bans are bad ideas," he says flatly. "Sure, they might cut down on frat parties, but it's not going to stop people from drinking. And if someone gets into the position where they should go to the hospital, I think that will make them less willing to do it. They'll be more worried about getting into trouble than about their health."

Zero-tolerance crackdowns also dodge another important issue. The problem isn't necessarily that students drink alcohol. The problem is that some of them drink far too much.

It's an all-American dilemma. Heath, the Brown anthropologist, says that our citizens' penchant for fast, furious drinking is singular. In the Mediterranean, people drink eight to nine times more per capita than Americans, but it's a better-paced, more sociable style of drinking. Conversely, we "drink to get drunk," Heath says.

Such abuse is a byproduct of inexperience, according to Heath. In European countries, with low or no minimum drinking ages, alcohol is traditionally introduced to adolescents in the home, by adult family members. "Young people become accustomed to drinking with the family," Heath says. "And they learn that being drunk is looked down upon."

But in America, with its higher drinking ages, young people learn to drink from their adolescent peers, who usually have little or no idea of the potential hazards. They grow up drinking unsupervised at house parties, in city parks, and -- far worse -- in automobiles. Instead of viewing alcohol as a complement to meals or conversation, teenagers are taught that drinking is an illicit thrill.

"When people drink socially, for camaraderie and celebration, it's fine," Heath says. "It's this idea of drinking to demonstrate how manly or how strong we are . . . that's trouble."

Indeed, Americans are the inventors of the funnel, the keg stand, the Jell-O shot, the beer slide, and a series of drink-till-you-puke games with names like "quarters," "thumper," "chandeliers," and "asshole." We'll invent a drinking game to match almost any activity: in one, participants are assigned a character from Beverly Hills 90210 and take a drink every time that character's name is mentioned. (Brandon's a favorite.)

But, as all students know, the truly excessive behavior -- the kind that shocks even them -- is not the kind of wide-ranging epidemic that the media have made it out to be. Very often, hard-partying college subcultures, such as fraternities and sororities, play a central role in encouraging it. Harvard's 1994 study found that the single strongest predictor of binge drinking was fraternity or sorority membership.

Wechsler, the Harvard binge drinking expert, surveyed 17,600 students at 140 American colleges. He found that 75 percent of fraternity members were binge drinkers, compared to 45 percent of other male students. Likewise, sorority members were almost twice as likely to be binge drinkers as other female students -- 62 percent compared to 35 percent.

Usually, Greek-system members are ready to drink when they arrive on campus, says Wechsler. "People who join fraternities have more extensive drinking experience than other students," he says.

These findings undermine the Greek system's standard refrain that drinking habits in fraternities and sororities are no better or worse than other students'. (There is a "witchhunt for fraternities," Alpha Kappa Sigma president David Lemasa complained to the Northeastern News after Krueger's death.)

Wisely, some fraternities and sororities are dropping this defensive attitude and acknowledging that alcohol represents a serious threat to their survival. Some are mandating dry rushes, sparing pledge classes from a grueling, alcohol-based initiation. Others have taken it even further. Two national fraternities, Sigma Nu and Phi Delta Theta, ordered all their houses to become alcohol-free by the year 2000. Following Krueger's death, the national branch of Phi Gamma Delta added its houses to that list.

To be sure, fraternities and sororities aren't the only problem. In a place like Boston, where the Greek system's presence is relatively small, binge drinking appears in other environments. The week of the Miami football game, the BC student newspaper, the Heights, published a column criticizing mod residents for not partying enough. The modsters viewed this as an insult -- a sign posted around campus asked IS THIS HOW WE WANT TO BE REMEMBERED?! -- and spent much of the morning trying to prove the columnist wrong.

Universities and colleges are getting better at addressing the issue of student drinking. Many institutions already have counseling programs in place. For the most part, the days of administrators holding their breath on Friday night and not exhaling until Monday morning are over.

In the wake of Krueger's death, MIT has reassessed its alcohol policy, hosting meetings with students and parents and even creating an online forum for drinking discussion. The university has also pledged to construct more undergraduate dormitory space so fewer freshmen are forced to turn to fraternities and other off-campus housing options.

But no single measure can serve as a cure-all. "The [college drinking] issue is so complex and intertwined in our culture that change is difficult," says Iddo Gilon, the president of MIT's interfraternity council. "For change to happen, you can't just put a policy on paper. You have to reach out into the entire community."

That's why outreach is the most important element in the fight against college alcohol abuse. Ensure that every student knows how much alcohol it takes to impair judgment, or cause intoxication or death, and enlist students to convey this information. When these risks are made clear, campus tolerance for alcohol abusers will shrink even further. If getting too drunk becomes uncool, then responsible students will patrol the others.

Students can also play a role in other preventive measures. For 10 years, Boston College has sponsored a program called Community Assistant Patrol (CAP), in which graduate assistants regularly monitor problematic off-campus party areas. If students spot an out-of-control party, they have the authority to confiscate fake IDs. But mostly, they warn students to break up the festivities before the police arrive and trouble starts.

Compared to run-ins with cops, BC students don't seem to mind the CAP service. "If you're off-campus, you don't want to deal with the Boston police," senior Anthony Martino told BU's Daily Free Press. "You'd rather deal with a [CAP] who just tells you to get out."

Even if a college's ultimate goal is getting rid of alcohol completely, it's better to work with students. A growing number of institutions, including Brandeis University, in Waltham, provide students with the option of living in a "dry" dormitory. It's a smaller-scale version of the type of alcohol ban Cellucci proposed for state schools.

The difference is that Brandeis didn't ram its policy past all its students in reaction to a tragedy. Its dry-dorm initiative was implemented gradually, and -- more important -- participation in the alcohol-free zone is the choice of students, not administrators.

The dry dorms have helped Brandeis minimize its drinking problems on campus by changing student attitudes. Students who apply to the university today don't come expecting a party-hearty campus lifestyle. Likewise, they don't feel obligated to continue a tradition of uncontrolled drinking once they get there.

Again, the point is cooperation, not combat. "You have to change the culture," says Dwight Heath. "And you do that by educating people."

There's a small party going on tonight in a three-bedroom apartment on Beacon Street, where a few Boston University students have gathered for the evening. A pair of students seated on an oversize brown couch flick through a phone-book-size folder of compact discs, loading the stereo tray with selections including Puff Daddy and Neil Diamond. A white-haired dog wanders around the hardwood floor.

Tonight's beverage of choice? Forty-ounce bottles of beer -- "40s" -- mostly Budweiser, with a few Old English 800 malt liquors ("OE800s") slipped in for street cred.

Right now, there are hundreds of small gatherings like this taking place among Boston's college students. They aren't huge. They aren't terribly organized. They aren't out of control. Still, because these students are underage, these parties are against the law.

And to that, these BU students say: Whatever. "Everyone drinks around here," says Ben, a junior with wire-rim glasses and heavily gelled hair.

Over the course of a few hours, the scene here remains mellow. No one gets falling-down, sloppy drunk. The worse offense is a brutally off-key chorus of Billy Joel's "Piano Man," which rousts the dog from his sleeping place on the couch. By 2 a.m., everyone's left or getting ready to go, and though a head or two might be spinning tonight in bed, there won't be any drinking horror stories to be told tomorrow morning.

Of course, it's not so sedate everywhere. Somewhere else in the city, no doubt, there are students who are drinking too much, and getting into trouble. Someone's getting sick. Someone's getting hurt.

But there are also other students out there who didn't drink at all, who have long since fallen asleep. Not everyone parties, studies, or behaves the same way.

The question is how best to reach the students who need help. And panic is not the answer. Rather, teach kids to respect alcohol and take responsibility for their actions.

Because pretty soon, these college students aren't going to be college students any more.

"I'll definitely slow down drinking when I get out of here and get a job," says Lisa, the BC mod resident. "I can't keep this up, right. . . . Right?"

Jason Gay can be reached at jgay@phx.com.


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