Silent alcohol deaths

(U-WIRE) CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – It is a universally acknowledged truth – college students drink. Too much. It’s no wonder, then, that U.S. colleges spend an enormous amount of time each year on alcohol awareness programs. Yet, when it comes to alcohol-related tragedies, some officials clearly would rather the public – even the students – remain unaware.

Last week, Duke University officials acknowledged that the Nov. 27 death of Raheem Bath, a junior, was directly related to alcohol consumption. The administration originally told students that Bath had died of bacterial pneumonia but neglected to mention that the infection resulted from aspiration – inhalation of a liquid, in this case his own vomit – after a night of heavy drinking. Duke President Nannerl O. Keohane was aware of the circumstances surrounding Bath’s death from the beginning. She issued a press release relating the full cause of death last week, after another student narrowly escaped death from a similar experience.

In a related story, Texas A&M University released reports Monday that provide several eyewitness accounts of alcohol consumption during the building of the Aggie Bonfire in November. Twelve students were killed Nov. 18 when a stack of logs used to construct the 40-foot structure collapsed. No mention of alcohol had been made in connection with the incident.

While it is still unclear how long the Texas A&M administration has had information about alcohol at the scene, a disturbing trend is emerging in connection with alcohol-related deaths. Too often universities fear negative publicity – especially during the prime months of admissions – and that fear outweighs the best interests of the students.

In recent years, there has been an increasing recognition of alcohol abuse on campuses nationwide – and, consequently, a stricter scrutiny of how individual colleges are attempting to correct the problem. The University of Virginia is no stranger to the kind of infamy that results from alcohol-related incidents. The 1997 death of fourth-year student Leslie Ann Baltz and its possible connection to the fourth-year fifth made national headlines. The attention was embarrassing. And yet Virginia continues to handle the alcohol culture here in a fairly direct manner.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for other universities. By not providing all the details of alcohol-related deaths to students, Duke and Texas A&M not only are failing to educate their students, but they may be endangering their lives as well.

When Baltz died, many Virginia students began to examine their own drinking habits and those of their friends. Her death – though not explicitly connected to the fourth-year fifth tradition – also helped prompt a campaign against the unofficial event.

In the Duke case, a student died of a relatively unknown condition. Many students don’t realize that aspiration is a threat after a night of binge drinking and that it requires immediate treatment. It is scary to think that had Duke continued to withhold the information surrounding the case more students could have suffered the same fate.

Duke officials argue that they were simply protecting the privacy of Bath and his family by not making public the role of alcohol in his death. And there is no doubt that the incredible tragedy at Texas A&M requires sensitive treatment by the administration and media.

There is a larger concern that outweighs a respect for the deceased. Alcohol-related deaths claim the lives of too many college students each year – in 1998 alone, five Virginia college students died in alcohol-related incidents. And while students are responsible for their actions, universities have a duty to monitor social attitudes on campus.

If universities expect their students to be open and direct about the social culture and the role of alcohol on campus, the administration must do the same. Keeping secrets will only serve to widen the emotional gap between students and those adults who inhabit the big offices. And the less students feel they can speak frankly about alcohol, the further the administration will be from the source of the problem – and potential solutions.

The word senseless is used a lot in conjunction with the deaths of college students. It is appropriate – there seems to be no rationale, no justice in the taking of such youth and promise. By speaking out honestly about student deaths, and making students aware of the dangers of alcohol, college officials have a chance to derive something positive from even the darkest tragedies, preventing them from happening again.

-Katie Dodd
Cavalier Daily (U. Virginia)

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