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Colleges Battle Stupidity Caused By Alcohol New Policies, Change In Society’s Attitudes Help Reduce Drinking

Loud music, broken bottles, scuffles and underage drinking are staples of most weekends on College Hill.

“Arrested for minor in possession of alcohol” read police logbooks.

“Arrested for driving while intoxicated.”

“Subjects throwing bottles into parking lot.”

“Arrested for consuming liquor in public.”

“Ambulance responded to unconscious female possibly related to alcohol.”

“Seventy-five percent of our crime is alcohol-related,” said Pullman police Sgt. Chris Tennant. “Once it turns dark out here, that’s all we run into.”

Last winter, Tennant said, a drunken Washington State University student passed out in his front yard and died from a combination of hypothermia and alcohol poisoning. And Pullman Memorial Hospital admitted more than 40 cases of severe intoxication - mostly students - last year.

“There was just a guy who came in, and I tried to find someone responsible to take him home,” said emergency room doctor Jerome Lang. “There was nobody (sober) in the whole fraternity.”

College drinking remains a problem at WSU and University of Idaho. A 1993 survey placed WSU in the top third of heavy-drinking schools.

At UI, a survey in 1994 suggested that nearly four out of 10 students had had five or more drinks in one sitting during the previous two weeks.

But officials from both universities say student drinking is nowhere near the wide-open days of the mid-1970s and early 1980s. Federal regulations, fear of liability lawsuits and alcoholfueled tragedies have prompted officials at both schools to clamp down on student drug and alcohol use.

In the early 1990s, 58 percent of WSU students reported at least one bout of so-called binge drinking - six or more drinks in a row - in the recent past, said John Miller, head of WSU’s substance abuse prevention program. In 1995, 42 percent reported such binges.

“Obviously, there’s still a significant number of people who binge,” said Miller. “But it’s better than it was, and I believe it’s continuing to get better. Society as a whole is getting tired of putting up with that behavior.”

“I’m never pleased when we have 20 or 30 (underage drinking) citations in a weekend,” said UI dean of students Bruce Pitman, referring to a Moscow police crackdown on underage drinkers in late August. “But that’s substantially different from five or six years ago.”

Collegiate drinking is nothing new, dating to before the days of raccoon coats and hip flasks.

“The consumption of alcohol is equated with growing up,” said Pitman. “It is, in many teenagers’ eyes, a rite of passage.”

In the 1950s and most of the 1960s, universities acted as guardians in the place of a student’s parents. They set rules - like curfews - accordingly.

By the late 1960s, students who could vote and be drafted for the Vietnam War felt they were old enough to drink, and their protests led to increasing independence. Idaho lowered the drinking age to 19, and WSU students surged over the border every weekend.

“In the mid-1970s, it was legal for virtually all students to consume alcohol, and they did,” said Pitman. Beer kegs were permitted in dorms.

In Pullman, “you had the typical ‘Animal House’ party or worse,” said Tennant. “We would have to wade in just to get the ambulance crew through.”

As a result of drinking, numerous students across the country died.

At WSU and UI, officials say they average about one student fatality from alcohol or drug use per year. Most, Tennant said, aren’t publicized - they’re generally listed as an unspecified ambulance call on police logs.

One of the most widely publicized college drinking tragedies was in 1993, when UI freshman Rejena Coghlan, celebrating her acceptance by a sorority, went to two fraternity parties. Intoxicated, she fell from a thirdfloor fire escape, becoming paralyzed from the waist down. She sued the university, the state board of education and the fraternities.

A judge recently dropped UI and the state as defendants in the suit.

Such cases shatter lives, draw unwanted publicity and infuriate parents and state legislators, who control funding for universities.

To curb student drinking, colleges have launched a wide variety of educational - and disciplinary - programs.

For example, UI students found guilty of underage drinking must go to an alcohol class. Second-time offenders face fines and more education. Third-time offenders can be booted from school. Penalties are harsher for older students who provide liquor to underage ones.

“We’ll never eliminate underage drinking,” said UI’s Pitman. “There has to be a really strong touch of realism here. As long as alcohol is glorified in our society and associated with coming of age, it’s a temptation.”

But he said students’ attitudes toward drinking are also changing. Nationwide, about one-third of students say they want to live in housing where alcohol isn’t allowed, he said. In a 1994 survey, three out of 10 UI students said they’d prefer not to have alcohol available at parties they attend.

Both WSU and UI have purportedly “substance-free” housing, where no alcohol is allowed. Of the 4,000 WSU students living on campus, 1,000 live in substance-free dorms. College officials say it’s resulted in a marked drop in fights and vandalism there.

“Just general stupidity is way down,” said WSU director of residence life Tony Nowak.

Friday night interviews with random students in WSU’s largest such dorm, however, suggest the residents aren’t all substance-free. Alcohol ads and even collections of empty beer and liquor bottles are common in student rooms.

Inside one such residence hall, Stephenson North, on a recent Friday, Kevin Magnuson and some friends were playing on a computer.

“You’re probably talking to the only sober people on this floor,” said the 19-year-old Richland student. His friends agreed, saying it’s common for residents to do their drinking at fraternity row.

Fraternities, sororities and their university advisers also say they’re trying to change the college drinking mindset. Both WSU and UI recently invited Eileen Stevens to speak. Stevens is the mother of Chuck Stevens, a 20-year-old Alfred University sophomore who died in 1978 of alcohol poisoning and hypothermia in a fraternity hazing. It was one of at least 78 such fatalities in the past two decades.

“I could not comprehend what would make my son drink enough to kill him,” she told a hushed capacity crowd - mostly fraternity and sorority students - at WSU’s Compton Union Building on Sept. 11.

Some students bristle at suggestions of changing the college drinking culture. When UI physics professor Mike Browne went to his office one Sunday and found the adjacent fraternity lawn covered with hundreds of empty beer bottles, he wrote a newspaper column suggesting fraternities - and alcohol - be banned at UI. He received threatening, anonymous phone calls.

Since the universities regulate fraternities, the biggest problem tends to be large parties in private houses, said Pullman’s Tennant. He’s been on the force for 14 years, breaking up fights, busting underage drinkers, consoling rape victims and picking up the injured - and the dead, like the student who died this spring in his own front yard.

“These are good kids. They’re just doing stupid stuff,” he said. “They’re away from home for the first time; there’s no one to answer to but themselves.

“It’s socially acceptable to drink, and in this atmosphere, it’s expected as a way of life,” he said.

“It’s my job to pick up the pieces.”

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