College Students and Binge Drinking

College Students and Binge Drinking

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Frank's* binge drinking began on a warm fall evening in September 2002. The 18-year-old freshman had just finished moving into Northeastern's Smith Hall, a dormitory on Hemenway Street for first year students, when one of his roommates decided that it was time to start drinking.

"Out of nowhere he pulled out a huge bottle of Southern Comfort and invited a bunch of people over," said Frank. "I was excited, because my idea of coming to college was to party and have fun and meet a lot of new people."

Frank says that that night, he and his roommate and a couple other freshmen students from Smith Hall drank the entire bottle of Southern Comfort as well as a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka.

"It felt great. I was talking to a bunch of new people, socializing, having a great time, then it all caught up to me and the room started spinning. I ended up passing out in my bunk bed and sleeping straight through til the next afternoon."

Frank's story is a common one on college campuses across the country. According to the Harvard School of Public Health's College Alcohol Study, a 2001 survey found that 44.4% of college students admit to binge drinking. The study defines binge drinking as five drinks in a row for males and four in a row for women, with a drink consisting of a 12 ounce beer, a 5 ounce glass of wine, or a 1 and a half ounce shot of hard liquor. One hundred and nineteen four-year colleges in the United States were selected to participate in the study, to represent a random cross-section of male and female students enrolled in 4 year colleges.

The binge drinking rate for white males like Frank was closer to 50% meaning that approximately one out of every two white males at a college in the United States has participated in binge drinking during their undergraduate career.

The study also states that "binge drinking was often accompanied by educational difficulties, psychosocial problems, antisocial behaviors, injuries, overdoses, high-risk sexual behaviors, and other risk taking, such as alcohol impaired driving."

The natural question one might ask is why this is occurring. Dr. Henry Wechsler, the author of the HSPH College Alcohol Study, recently published a book on the topic, "Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses." According to Dr. Wechsler's book, "The availability

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of large volumes of alcohol (24- and 30-can cases of beer, kegs, party balls), low sale prices, and frequent promotions and advertisements at both on- and off-premise establishments were associated with higher binge drinking rates on the college campuses."

He believes that alcohol is marketed to college students in a way that encourages binge behavior, and as a result students take advantage of the easy access to alcoholic drinks and overindulge.

Frank believes that there are also other factors involved. "I drank occasionally in high school but it wasn't a major issue, we had parties and alcohol was always around, but at the time binging wasn't a frequent thing. However when you get to college, and you face academic pressure, and the social pressure of meeting new people and fitting in, as well as the independence of not having parents around to monitor your behavior. It just becomes way too easy to start binging, and once you start it's a slippery slope."

That slippery slope for Frank has involved a three year progression of negative events-paying fines, a school suspension, and an alcohol-related auto accident. During his freshman year Frank continued to drink heavily, often missing classes with hangover symptoms, and gradually becoming more depressed. He was caught drinking in the dorms twice by university officials, and faced fines and probation after the first offense, and a deferred suspension after the second.

"That meant that I had one more chance; If I messed up again and got caught, I'd be done for a while," he said.

Following the Fall term Frank took a medical leave of absence from the university for mental health issues, issues he said were aggravated by his frequent alcohol abuse.

Frank returned in the fall of 2003, hoping that his freshman year troubles were just that, and that he could move beyond them and be a successful student. He continued to drink heavily, but made a committment to attend classes and do his homework, believing that extra academic effort could balance out the negative influence of binge drinking. As Christmas break approached, Frank's grades dropped progressively lower as his drinking increased and he ended the term with a report card that left his parents upset and Frank feeling disappointed in himself.

"It was like, I tried so hard in school, but I still wanted to have fun, and even though I went to classes and did my work pretty regularly, I just couldn't learn and retain the material."

Frank decided the best approach to his problem was to once again take time off from school.

"I packed up and went to Arizona for five months, where I lived with my cousin, worked a couple of jobs, and drank heavily. I missed my friends and
family in Milton and wanted to come back, but I thought being away would help me get my head together."

Once again, Frank returned for the fall semester in 2004. He rented an apartment on Westland Avenue with a pair of longtime friends, and they settled in for what Frank hoped would be a fulfilling and successful academic year. Frank did his best to curb his weeknight drinking, and went to classes with regularity. However, near the end of the semester he had what would become one of the worst nights of his life.

"It was the weekend right before finals started, and my roommates and I decided to have a bunch of people over. We had people over a lot every
weekend, to drink and have fun at our place. One of my roommates left a pellet gun lying around, so after we all had been drinking heavily we took it out back behind my apartment and started shooting at trash in a nearby parking lot. Then we went inside and kept drinking and having fun."

What Frank and his friends didn't know was that an errant pellet they had fired had ricocheted and broken the front window of an apartment across the street. The Boston Police responded and entered the apartment after, according to the police report, seeing subjects through a window inside the basement apartment drinking and passing around the pistol.

"They came in yelling for everyone to get down, and people just kind of scattered," said Frank. "A bunch of my friends managed to escape through a
back exit, but my roommate and I stayed behind to talk to the police and try to settle things." Frank, who was only 20 at the time, was arrested along with his roommate, and booked on alcohol charges as well as malicious destruction of property for the broken window.

"We sat in jail all night and when my parents finally came to bail me out they were so disappointed," said Frank. "We went home and I knew that I was facing some serious trouble with the school for what happened."

Frank was right about that. The Northeastern Police were notified of the incident by the Boston Police, and the university began to take action against Frank for his role in the crime. The infraction was his third alcohol offense, which is grounds for suspension under the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution's guidelines for student behavior. Frank was ordered by the court to pay for the window damages, issue an apology, perform 200 hours of community service, and was also placed on probation. The university took stiffer action, suspending him for the spring and summer terms.

"All in all I was lucky. I could've easily gotten expelled for such a stupid incident where someone could've easily been hurt," he said. Just two weeks after the incident, Frank decided to visit an old high school friend at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He set out driving on a Friday afternoon, sipping beers and mixed drinks along the way. The trip was cut short in rural Delaware, however, when Frank lost control of the car and swerved into a guardrail. The car, which was travelling at about 60 miles per hour at the time, flipped up on its side and slid off the road over a snowbank, coming to rest nearly 60 feet from the highway.

"It was horrifying. I thought for sure I was going to die when I lost control," said Frank. "I managed to climb out of the wreck and wait on the side of the road until the state troopers came and took me to the police station. I guess they just didn't smell the alcohol on me, or figured the crash was the result of driving too fast or black ice or something."

Frank said he was lucky to escape the crash without serious injury or police charges for drunk driving. The car, which was totalled, was towed back to Milton by Frank's parents.

"After that, my dad sat me down and gave me a lecture on everything that had happened. He told me that I was becoming a lightning rod for trouble, and told me that I should really spend some time considering what my heavy drinking
was doing to my life."

Other students around the country haven't been so lucky when it comes to binge drinking. According to an article in USA Today the following students were found dead in the last six months following a night of heavy drinking:

Samantha Spady, 19, was found in early September in a Colorado State University frathouse.

Blake Hammontree, 19, was found dead in late September at the University of Oklahoma after a long night of drinking at a fraternity house.

Lynn "Gordie" Bailey, 18, was found dead two weeks earlier at a frathouse at the University of Colorado.

Bradley Kemp, 20, was found dead at the University of Arkansas in early October.

Amanda Morrison, 21, fell to her death at Colorado College on Oct 21. Her blood alcohol content at the time was 0.22, nearly 3 times the national legal limit to drive.

Joseph Osborne, 24, died of alcohol poisoning at Colorado Mountain College on Oct. 27th

Five fraternity brothers were hit with felony charges for providing alcohol to a minor following Hammontree's death. Investigations are still ongoing in the cases of Bailey, Kemp, Spady, Morrison and Osborne.

These are not isolated incidents. The Task Force on College Drinking recently published a study that estimates that each year, approximately 1,400 college students die in incidents directly related to alcohol consumption. About 500,000 more are injured, while 600,000 assaults and 70,000 sexual assaults occur on campuses each year due to alcohol consumption.

Northeastern University President Richard Freeland told the "Vermont Quarterly" that in response to binge drinking issues at Northeastern, the administration is "looking to educate them (students), to take a more adult and mature stance toward behavior that may have been acceptable 30 or 40 years ago, but no longer is because a lot has changed and the consequences of drinking are far scarier.”

Northeastern's Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution (OSCCR) handles disciplinary actions involving students who drink illegally on campus. OSCCR publishes a code of student conduct in the university handbook that outlines the sanctions students who drink on campus can face. For a first offense, OSCCR mandates that the student be placed on probation and attend an alcohol education class. Second offenses typically involve a fine, possible community service, and deferred suspension. A student who commits three offenses faces stiffer fines and community service, as well as a suspension
from the university. Students who continue to violate the university's policies after three offenses usually face expulsion.

Locally Northeastern University conducted a survey in 2000 to assess student drinking on campus. The survey found that 75% of students polled drink during an average week. Thirty nine percent said that they drink more than five drinks when they party, a number that falls close to the Harvard study's figure of 44%. One third of all undergrads surveyed admitted to missing a class within the last year due to alcohol consumption.

In an independent survey conducted for this piece, 30 male Northeastern students were asked to answer questions about their alcohol usage. Of the 30 subjects, 14 admitted to consuming alcohol more than 4 times per week. Of those 14, 57% said that when they drink, they consume more than five drinks in an average night, a rate slightly higher than the 50% of male students who reported binge behavior in the HSPH study.
When asked what their primary reason for drinking was, 7 of the 14 cited academic pressure, while the others said that it was mainly for enjoyment and relaxation.

It is a mild Wednesday evening in mid-March. Frank has just gotten home from work, after a day of serving drinks at a cocktail lounge in the heart of Boston. He arrives home to find a 30-pack of beer in the refrigerator, bought by a roommate the night before. As he opens his first beer of the night and puts his feet up to relax, he reflects on what drinking has done to his life.

"I guess when you look at everything, it looks pretty crazy to an outsider," he says. "I don't feel like I'm some horrible drunk or that booze was ever really a problem for me. I just made some bad decisions along the way, but that's kind of what life in college is all about, learning from your mistakes and growing as a person."

Frank now looks to the future as his main priority, hoping that he can avoid alcohol-related troubles in the future and achieve the goals he has set for himself.

"I mean obviously my first priority is getting my undergrad degree in the music industry program," he said. "After that, I really want to think about law school. My dad and brother both graduated from law school here and I feel like that's the natural direction for me to head in. But I guess I have to take things as they come and just try to get a degree, hopefully within the next four or five years."

Frank says the last bit with a nervous laugh, acknowledging that his track record at Northeastern has set him back a substantial amount of time.

When asked if he had any advice for incoming freshmen, Frank said that "drinking can be a ton of fun, and it happens everywhere around campus so it's tough to avoid. But it's important to realize that every time you get really drunk, every time you keep pounding beers or taking shots all night, you're increasing the chance that something horrible could happen, that you could get hurt or killed. I've been pretty lucky so far, but in the long run it's just not worth it to put yourself at risk multiple times every week."

Does he plan to quit drinking, or at least cut back?

"Yeah definitely, I'm trying to train myself to get used to drinking a lot less. I think if I can work on drinking less and keeping a clear head, I'll make better choices in the future and get my life back on track."
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