Please Think Responsibly

F&M Uses Enforcement, Education and Alternatives to Combat Alcohol Use

Few topics on college campuses generate as much of a visceral response from both sides of the aisle as underage drinking. On one side are those who believe underage students should be policed and punished for drinking alcohol. The other side believes that underage drinking is a fact of life on most, if not all, college campuses, so educating students to drink responsibly is the best way to ensure their safety.

While Franklin & Marshall has academic and social qualities that set it apart from peer institutions and larger universities, the College is not unique when it comes to its struggle with students who engage in risky drinking habits.

The national debate about how to handle alcohol abuse on campus escalated last summer when a group of college presidents and chancellors signed their names to the Amethyst Initiative. Spearheaded by former Middlebury College President John McCardell, Amethyst is a public statement that calls on elected officials "to support an informed and dispassionate public debate" about the legal drinking age of 21 and "invite new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol."

Instead of a "dispassionate public debate," the signers found themselves in the midst of a political firestorm that raged in their backyards and on a national level. College presidents who signed on reported a barrage of criticism from parents, alumni and trustees, in addition to attacks from national advocacy groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Opponents painted the movement as colleges' abdicating responsibility for the actions of their underage students by seeking to lower the drinking age and pointed to statistics that showed the 21-year-old drinking age, enacted in 1984, had saved countless lives.

Proponents argued that their mission was misunderstood. They were not seeking to lower the drinking age; they simply wanted to reopen the discussion about whether 21 is the right age. The current drinking age, they believe, promotes a culture of clandestine binge drinking and erodes students' respect for the law through the use of fake IDs.

They further argued that if an institution accepts the reality that drinking exists on its campus and wants to shift to a culture of responsible drinking, the current law inhibits them from publicly educating and advocating responsible consumption.

To date, 135 college officials have signed. Some college presidents, such as Franklin & Marshall's John Fry, can appreciate both sides of the debate. While Fry declined to sign the initiative, after lengthy deliberation and consultation with numerous members of the College community, he supports the good intentions of its stated mission.

"When John McCardell says this is meant to stimulate a dialogue, I think he's serious about the dialogue part," Fry says. "I thought that, as we have been struggling with this issue just as other institutions have been, an open discussion about this would be healthy for our community. I think it is important we talk about substance abuse of all kinds on this campus. Amethyst and the way we are processing it does fulfill one of McCardell's aspirations for this initiative, which is, 'OK, let's have the conversation.'"

Starting the Dialogue

For Fry, the theoretical debates surrounding the Amethyst Initiative are nearly irrelevant. What matters is the reality. "The main issue is the rampant and irresponsible consump-tion of alcohol on this campus and other campuses," he says. "In some ways it is inexplicable that very intelligent, hard-working, devoted kids who put their all into their college experience will then shut things down and do things that are potentially harmful to themselves or watch others do harmful things to themselves."

Recent studies suggest F&M is part of a national trend where underage drinking continues to be prevalent in spite of extensive alcohol-education programs at the high school and college level. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration published data that showed that more than half (53.9) of 12- to 20-year-olds have consumed alcohol. The rate jumps to 72 percent when applied to 18- to 20-year-olds. Excessive alcohol consumption accounts for nearly 5,000 deaths in people under the age of 21 each year.

The need for a dialogue about alcohol use on campus is not new. F&M had already convened a task force in 2003. But hearing the national debate and knowing that alcohol use on campus was still a concern, Fry and Dean of the College Kent Trachte felt the time had come to appoint another task force at the start of the fall 2008 semester.

The Task Force on Alcohol Issues, chaired by Steven O'Day, senior associate dean of the College, was charged with identifying the existing culture of alcohol consumption, making recommendations about how the College can best address problems and researching whether the College should sign on to the Amethyst Initiative.

The task force knew that a key issue was the reality of high-risk alcohol consumption by a relatively small percentage of students on campus. The issue gained tragic poignancy for the F&M community following the death of Phil Rehders '08 soon after the start of the semester. Rehders, an accomplished swimmer, writer and leader who had graduated that May, was on campus visiting friends in early October. After a night of socializing and drinking, Rehders was found unresponsive in a residence hall and later pronounced dead at Lancaster General Hospital.

"Phil's death rocked the institution to its core," Fry says. "If this could happen to a person like Phil, it could happen to anyone."

In the shadow of Rehders' death, the task force went to work with renewed focus. The 19-member group of F&M students, faculty, College House leaders and administrators met throughout the fall and spring semesters.

In addition to group meetings, the task force met with hundreds of students. "We did not want to limit the input to the 19 people in the room," O'Day explains. "We decided to break the task force into pairs and asked each pairing to have a series of meetings with student groups that were natural affiliations, such as athletic teams, student clubs and organizations, and Greek organizations, to really sit down and have a conversation."

Assessing the Culture

The task force's assessment of the campus culture produced few surprises. The good news was that overall consumption of alcohol by F&M students was lower than it was five years ago, according to data gathered by Jack Heller, associate professor of psychology and Brooks College House don, and Christine Conway, director of counseling services.

The 2009 student survey data, compiled as part of Heller and Conway's ongoing institutional research, reveals that 23 percent of students are non-drinkers, 68 percent drink at levels that put them in a moderate-risk category (one to 19 drinks per week) and 9 percent drink at levels that put them in a high-risk category (20+ drinks per week).

In 2003, the numbers were 20 percent non-drinkers, 61 percent moderate-risk drinkers and 20 percent high-risk drinkers. Particularly encouraging to College officials is the drop in the number of students in the high-risk category, from 20 percent to 9 percent.

"The data suggest that an overwhelming percentage of students on campus are either making the choice not to drink or to drink in moderation," Trachte says. "I think that the result of all the attention we have paid to the issue in the last five years is a growing sense of responsibility. Are there still students who engage in risky behavior? Yes. Do we need to continue to find ways to address these students? Yes."

Even though consumption is down, there still exists a culture of alcohol use at F&M. Parties, both registered and private, are regular occurrences, and alcohol is available with varying degrees of accessibility to both of-age and underage students.

Registered parties must follow specific protocols when alcohol is present. Some of these protocols were put in place after the College instituted a moratorium on Greek social events last fall. "I did so because I had evidence of various sorts that made it clear to me that Greek organizations did not follow the protocols in place that are designed to acknowledge that we have a 21-year-old drinking age," Trachte explains.

Citing survey results and incident reports about underage drinking and the misuse of the colored wrist bands that indicate a student's age, Trachte worked with Greek Council, the governing body of Greek organizations, to rework and strengthen the protocols.

One of the most visible differences when Greek social events were reinstated was that the College required a licensed bartender (paid for by the College) to serve the alcohol and check IDs at sponsored parties. In addition, the College strengthened the "party patrol," whereby peers from other organizations attend a party to observe whether the rules, such as having a door monitor and providing food and non-alcoholic beverages, are being followed.

Still, the task force found that "anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that compliance with stated protocols is not always achieved."

Private parties are also commonplace and potentially more problematic, because they do not adhere to formal regulations. Also, while beer is generally the drink of choice at fraternity and other College-sponsored parties, there are more options, namely hard liquor, at the private get-togethers.

The availability of hard liquor has been linked to a trend known as "pre-loading" or "pre-gaming." Pre-gaming involves underage drinkers consuming hard liquor before a party, because they know they might not be able to obtain liquor at the party, Heller says.

Pre-gaming is hard to monitor. "Students can hide a bottle of liquor in their backpacks and walk into a dorm," Heller says. "It's much harder to hide a case of beer."

This drink-fast, drink-quiet practice is the newest type of binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks over a short period of time, that has plagued college campuses for decades. A study published this summer by the Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry showed that binge drinking among college males is unchanged since 1979, and among college women it has increased by 40 percent. Various surveys indicate that between 40 and 44 percent of college students engage in binge drinking.

A Multifaceted Approach

Identifying the problem is comparatively easy. Doing something about it is much harder. The task force and the College agree that there is no single solution. The approach needs to include enforcement, education and alternative programming. Since the task force made its 26 recommendations in April 2009, the College already has implemented many of them, but the process continues.

The first recommendation was to alter the College's Amnesty Policy. In the past, a student who called seeking medical assistance for another student was not subject to the sanctions of the College's Alcohol Policy, but the student for whom assistance was requested was. The task force recommended expanding the policy to exempt both students in this situation, after finding that many students were hesitant to call for a friend who was in distress for fear of getting their friend in trouble. Under the new policy, neither the caller nor the affected student is subject to sanctions.

The task force recommended taking a programmatic approach to engaging parents in discussions about alcohol. It suggested that the College Houses revisit the alcohol issues covered during Orientation one month into the fall semester. And it advised that the College create a student-run EMS response service to provide emergency medical care after Appel Health Services has closed for the day.

The College did its part by sending a letter to parents from Fry and Trachte. The letter highlighted the task-force findings, outlined the initiatives the College already had put in place and asked parents for their "partnership in this effort by opening up honest and frank conversations about alcohol with your students."

Students have stepped up to implement the other two recommendations. This fall the College rolled out its first student emergency medical service, initiated by a group of F&M students.

"What I liked about the EMS example is that it was students coming in as entrepreneurs and saying that we want startup support for this venture that we think will help you mitigate the issue," Fry says.

Another student-driven initiative is the .08 Club, whose name comes from the fact that a person with a .08 blood-alcohol level is considered legally intoxicated. This group of about 50 upperclassmen talks to peers and encourages them to "know your limits and be responsible," says Molly Austin '10, the club's president.

Austin spent the summer recruiting students to help serve as mentors and educators and talk to other students, especially first-years, about the dangers and social repercussions of irresponsible drinking. "As a first-year, I would have liked to have an older student talk to me about these things," she says.

This group stepped up to offer the peer-to-peer counseling sessions in the College Houses four weeks into the semester as a follow-up to the programs offered at Orientation. They spoke to first-years once the students had the chance to experience the social life at F&M. "The students could not get enough of our stories," she says.

The task force also recommended creating events that were not centered on alcohol.

Recommendations included expanding late-night venues on campus, creating an on-campus movie theater and a late-night dance club, providing late-night dining hall food service and augmenting the existing shuttle service to off-campus activities other than parties and bars.

In response, the College restarted movie nights on campus, extended the hours that dining halls are open and expanded the shuttle service. Last year's alcohol-free Halloween party, sponsored primarily by Greek organizations, attracted 1,300 students and gives the College hope that meaningful alternative programming can appeal to many students.

The final recommendation of the task force concerned the Amethyst Initiative. It recommended—though not unanimously—that Fry add his signature, because it would confirm "the belief that all ideas should be considered as our College continues to discuss and implement ways of reducing dangerous consumption of alcohol." As yet, the College has not signed but continues to engage in the dialogue.

Moving Forward

A year removed from Rehders' death and six months since the task force's recommendations were released, the College still grapples with these issues.

On Oct. 3, Trachte announced in a campus-wide e-mail that in the first five weeks of the semester 15 students required emergency-room services for acute intoxication. This number exceeds the number of transports for the entire fall 2008 semester and exceeds the number for each of the previous two school years.

While administrators are encouraged by data that show drinking has decreased and by the initiative that some students have shown, they realize real change cannot be implemented top-down.

"Everyone is trying to work toward a shift in the culture, which can only work if it is initiated with and through the students," O'Day says. "If the students don't adopt and embrace the changes, nothing will change."

Fry concurs, and he believes the key might be to leverage the very qualities that draw students to Franklin & Marshall.

"I'm working off this theory that has become clear to me over the last number of years. Our students do best when they can direct their own intellectual and social activities, such as in the House System," Fry says. "My inclination is, on the issue of quality of campus life, to find ways to let students be the authors of that, as opposed to being handed a list of activities."

He believes the College needs to find ways to help students construct a social life that is more fulfilling and more accountable so that the minute something is going in the wrong direction, there is a response among the students themselves.

"Without full student engagement in this issue and our really talking through some of the difficult things we need to talk through, which includes enforcement and accountability, we're not going to get anywhere," Fry says. "At least with this process, we have a better opportunity to bear down and get really serious about this."


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2 Responses »

  1. The 21-year-old drinking age is foolish. In all other western nations the drinking age is 18 and in many, such as France and Germany among others, for beer and wine it is 16. We are insulting our children by not affording them the respect that they can handle their alcohol at 18. Perhaps they cannot, but that is the fault of our laws. If we lower the drinking age and, most of all, beer and wine become an accepted part of the culture - as cultivated drinks, not light beer or box wine to be chugged,- we may be able to teach them to enjoy alcohol in moderation. Seriously, if the nation is not ready to do such a thing, F&M should take the lead by instituting an open-cup policy and by signing the Amethyst Unitiative. The 21-year-old drinking age is a failure. It was an experiment that perhaps had some merit, just as Prohibition did. But that in the end has only become an insult to the responsibility and intelligence of our youth by making them second-class citizens. Please F&M, as an institution of higher learning that should promote above average intelligence, I think we can see that this law is foolish and ineffective. Repealing it would do far more good than harm, to our society and culture.

  2. I couldn't agree more. Stanton Peele, an expert on addiction, attributes alcoholism chiefly to not introducing children to alcohol in the home and teaching them to drink properly. When this is not done then young people teach young people with disastrous results.

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