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Proof? (continued)

The disconnect between education and the surrounding physical environment is often too hard for college students to resist. “If you tell a person in a school room ‘don’t drink’ and they walk outside to a neighborhood that’s surrounded by bars, restaurants and convenience stores with posters telling them how wonderful [drinking] is, what educational program is going to be able to balance that level of ‘positive’ messaging?”

Even freshman orientations that include alcohol awareness components have limited effects. “The follow-up shows there’s no difference in behavior,” notes Jernigan. “That is what alcohol education finds over and over again. You get a difference in knowledge, but not a difference in behavior.”

So is the situation hopeless? Not exactly. Jernigan says there are a few examples of universities and their communities who’ve joined forces to impact drinking, often spurred on by student alcohol-related tragedies. Frostburg State University was one such community. In November 1996, a freshman there died after consuming a minimum of six beers and 12 shots of vodka at a frat party. In 2005, alcohol-laden hazing by teammates nearly killed a field hockey player. And in February 2006, an intoxicated student reportedly vomited and choked to death in his off-campus home.

In response, Frostburg’s leadership phased in a zero-tolerance policy for illegal alcohol consumption both on and off campus, including parent notification of student violators. Off-campus alcohol violators also had to face a university judicial board. Outside the university’s borders, the school and the bars took aggressive action to enforce existing laws and curb policies that encouraged excessive drinking. The goal, according to Frostburg President Jonathan Gibralter, who arrived on campus in August 2006, was to alter the “culture of alcohol abuse.” It appears to have worked; according to The Washington Times, Frostburg officials claimed that second offenders of the school’s alcohol policies dropped by 89 percent the year after the new policies began on-campus, and off-campus citations fell 39 percent after Gibralter brought those offenders before Frostburg’s judicial board.

Jernigan says Frostburg and the University of Delaware have worked with businesses surrounding their campuses to create the kind of controlled environment that can be effective. The key, he insists, is limiting access to alcohol through legal, economic and social constraints. “You create a town-gown coalition,” he says. “You go into the bars that predictably ring a college campus and you do things like getting rid of drink specials, pitchers of alcohol and any kind of unlimited serving. You get rid of drinking games. You make the on-premise service safe. You support strong enforcement of checking ID.”

Though many question why adults under 21 can vote and join the military, but can’t drink a beer, injury prevention pioneer Susan Baker says, “I just don’t get that ‘if you’re old enough to fight for your country, you’re old enough to put a harmful substance into your body.’”

Jernigan admits that such efforts are time consuming and go against the grain of many college administrators who don’t like the idea of playing cop and who hope that lowering the MLDA would eliminate excessive drinking and its associated health consequences. “This problem on college campuses is unpleasant. It’s incredibly unpleasant to have to notify a parent that their kid has suffered an alcohol related injury. It is incredibly unpleasant to have to be in the position of enforcing the age 21 drinking laws. Apparently some college presidents do not like being in that business.”

Asked if what they really might be objecting to is the cost of such enforcement, Jernigan is blunt.

“I would argue that it will cost them more if they don’t have these laws.”

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Alcohol on Campus: The Problem

Alcohol on Campus

Alcohol abuse takes an appalling toll on college campuses in the U.S. each year. Alcohol policy expert David Jernigan surveys the consequences.

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