GW tackles recent rash of binge drinking

After a string of underage drinking arrests and alcohol-related hospitalizations, the GW administration is ratcheting up its responsible drinking campaign to head off serious injury or even fatalities.

The recent alcohol-related incidents at GW are underscored by a recently released survey conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health.

In it, medical researchers detailed what they call the “most serious public health issue facing American colleges.” The findings reveal that the drinking habits of the nation’s college students have remained largely unchanged over the past decade.

The report classified “binge drinking” as consuming five or more drinks in a row for men (four or more for women) at least once in the two weeks before the survey.

Using those standards, 42 percent of students were found to be binge drinkers, while 19 percent of students were abstainers. An additional 20 percent were “frequent” binge drinkers.

The survey, based on a nationally representative sample of 130 colleges, was meant to explore the extent and consequences of binge drinking and identify the types of students most involved in this behavior, said Dr. Henry Wechsler, director of the study.

Fraternities and sororities continue to be at the center of the campus alcohol culture, according to the report. And despite highly publicized tragedies and continued re-evaluation of alcohol policies, two out of every three fraternity and sorority members still are binge drinkers.

The harmful effects of binge drinking also were evaluated.

Among the findings, 26 percent of binge drinkers reported forgetting where they were or what they had done; 22 percent said they had engaged in unplanned sexual activity; 11 percent said they had been hurt or injured while under the influence; six percent had been in trouble with campus or local police while intoxicated; and 35 percent reported driving after having consuming alcohol.

But increasingly common are consequences more serious than the occasional hangover or random hookup.

In Boston last week, prosecutors charged a Massachusetts Institute of Technology fraternity with manslaughter and hazing in the case of a student who drank himself to death last year.

Eighteen-year-old Scott Krueger slipped into a coma after binge drinking at a party at Phi Gamma Delta, where he was a pledge.

District Attorney Ralph Martin said it was the first time a fraternity had been charged with homicide.

In other cases around the country involving fraternity drinking deaths, individuals have been charged with homicide, but the organizations themselves have faced only charges involving alcohol violations.

In August, a Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at Louisiana State University pleaded no contest to purchasing alcohol for underage drinkers and agreed to pay a fine of $22,600 in a plea bargain over the drinking death of a 20-year old pledge.

And in Cumberland, Md., eight people at Frostburg State University were fined $1,000 and placed on five-year probation after a freshman drank himself to death at a fraternity party.

But Dana Henderson, the director of GW’s Substance Abuse Prevention Center until she left the University Friday, downplayed the gravity of GW’s drinking problem.

“We have one of the lowest binge drinking rates in the nation,” Henderson said, citing a 1996 survey that showed only 14 percent of GW students drink dangerously.

But the alcohol culture isn’t the focus at GW. The focus is D.C. There is a distinct feeling on Saturday nights here that you don’t see at big state schools where drinking is much more rampant.
-Dana Henderson, former director of GW’s Substance Abuse Prevention Center

Henderson cited a small Greek-letter community as one of the reasons.

“The best predicting factor of whether a student will binge drink or not is Greek affiliation,” Henderson said, “And at GW, being Greek is not a prerequisite for having a life.”

Thirty-nine percent of students at GW don’t drink at all, and another 27 percent are classified as “social drinkers,” consuming only one or two drinks in a row, Henderson said.

“Interestingly, 48 percent of students at GW think that the majority of their peers binge drink three times per week,” Henderson said. “So there is a discrepancy between reality and perception.”

“What I see is the same offenders over and over again,” she said.

“I really don’t think there is a big `drinking culture’ at GW, and I attribute that partly to the culturally diverse population, which has different views on alcohol’s role in society,” Henderson said. “Americans see alcohol uniquely, dating back to Prohibition.

“But the alcohol culture isn’t the focus at GW. The focus is D.C. There is a distinct feeling on Saturday nights here that you don’t see at big state schools where drinking is much more rampant,” Henderson said.

“All in all, people don’t come here to party; they come here because `something happens here,’ like it says in the admissions pamphlets,” Henderson said.

Mike Gargano, assistant vice president for Student and Academic Support Services, has a different view.

“Statistics are great, but there’s nothing like getting in the trenches and seeing firsthand what the GW social scene is all about. All you have to do is go down to Tequila Bar and Grille or walk along M Street in Georgetown on a Saturday night and you see what goes on,” Gargano said. “You hope that all the students you see drinking are 21, but in reality, of course, they’re not.”

“I think we do have a problem,” said Mike Walker, senior assistant dean of students. “Sometimes it concerns me that we are so far under the national average that people don’t see it as a problem.

“I don’t have any current statistics pertaining to GW, but I can tell you that the 14 percent binge drinking rate that is reflected in that 1996 survey seems to contradict the high number of incidents we have seen here over the past few weeks,” Walker said.

“What we don’t want to do is to mitigate awareness or diminish the seriousness of this issue. Anecdotally, from a personal perspective, I can tell you that 14 percent is not correct,” he said.

Since the beginning of the semester, 10 students have been hospitalized in alcohol-related incidents, up about two-thirds from last year.

“Last year, there were 1,011 disciplinary cases, 45 percent of which were alcohol-related,” Walker said. “From where I sit that’s a problem.

“This is of great concern to the GW population, and we are trying to solicit input from students, the administration and faculty members to turn this situation around,” he said. “And I can tell you that in the last three weeks there have been no hospitalizations related to alcohol.”

We are trying to get rid of the thinking that you have to drink to have a good time in college.
-Mike Gargano, assistant vice president for Student and Academic Support Services

Within the past few weeks, administrators met informally to deal with the recent alcohol incidents and discuss the possibility of forming a permanent committee to look into the problem.

“The `Pack your bags’ fliers posted in residence halls that listed the severity of alcohol violations were a single outgrowth of that meeting,” Walker said.

“It’s a matter of being proactive,” said Karen Warren, manager of Student Judicial Services.

“And Judicial Services is, by its nature, a reactive organization,” Warren said.


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