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Lawmakers considering DUI courts for college campuses

Sat., Jan. 19, 2013

Legislators concerned over binge drinking by students

OLYMPIA – Washington State University uses many tools to combat binge drinking by students, from mandatory information programs to counseling to notifying parents, a school official told a legislative panel Friday. But WSU is still pretty typical for alcohol abuse among young adults.

Nationwide, roughly two out of five people in WSU’s key age group of 18 to 25 engage in binge drinking at some point.

The Legislature might give WSU and other colleges around the state one more tool to reduce on-campus drinking – special courts on campus similar to courts in Spokane that specialize in driving under the influence cases.

The Senate Law and Justice Committee, which is considering a bill to authorize college DUI courts, got some sobering facts on binge drinking from Robert King of the Century Council, a national group trying to curb alcohol abuse.

Although there has been a decline in binge drinking among young adults, King said, they estimate that 41 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds engage in binge drinking at some point. About one-third of all college students would qualify as alcohol abusers, he said.

College students have a different definition of binge drinking than the government, he added. Researchers define it as four to five drinks in a two-hour period; college students define it as “drinking until you pass out.”

Colleges on the Palouse have experienced a handful of drinking-related accidents this school year, with one WSU freshman dying of alcohol poisoning and three others injured in falls from buildings. A student at the University of Idaho also was injured in a fall.

Bruce Wright, WSU director of health and counseling services, said the university has revised its alcohol policy to strengthen sanctions and interventions. It has a new program, mandatory for all incoming freshmen, called Booze, Sex and Reality Checks. The school has motivation interviews, it refers some students to treatment programs and it notifies parents. WSU has worked with local officials and landlords to toughen noise and nuisance ordinances and crack down on landlords of “party houses.”

While those have some positive effects, Wright said, “WSU is pretty typical of other campuses of similar size.” It may not have more students drinking, but it has some students drinking more.

“We’re seeing higher blood-alcohol content,” he said. “Students are saying, ‘We’re going to go out and get bombed, then we’re going to post what we do on YouTube.’ ”

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, wants to give the colleges the ability to join with the local municipal or district court to set up DUI courts on campus.

“It would create a partnership in dealing with this problem,” said Padden, the committee chairman, of the proposal. A court by itself can’t suspend or expel a student from school, or impose other academic sanctions, so the colleges would have to work with the judges on those decisions.

The bill still needs work, he said, to address the concerns of some committee members. For example, Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, wondered if the courts should handle more than just DUI cases from students.

Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, had a simpler solution for dealing with college students who drink. When an official from a community college said the school didn’t have the resources to treat most alcohol problems, or even track infractions by students off campus, Roach said the school should just let students know there would be consequences and monitor the DUI convictions listed in local papers.

“Attach a penalty. Kick ’em out, whatever,” Roach said. “You’ve got to make it tough.”

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