With more students hospitalized for drinking, administrators search for answers

Nearly a quarter more students were rushed to the hospital for drinking this fall compared to the same period last year, an increase that has concerned top officials across the University.

Student life officials are searching for answers after campus police hospitalized an average of 14 students per week during the first two months of classes, a 70 percent increase from three years ago.

Administrators are trying to narrow down the causes of the increase, pointing to a rise in fake IDs and more students calling the student-based EMS team, EMeRG, for their friends. But University police officers also said that breathalyzer tests this year suggest that students are drinking to more extreme levels.

An officer who has worked at GW for several years said patrols used to occasionally find students “unconscious or passed out in a bush – like blacked out, completely limp, no clue what was going on.”

“But now, it’s like you have one or two every weekend, which is crazy,” said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because officers are not allowed to speak to the media.

University Police Department Chief Kevin Hay said officers typically administer two breathalyzer tests several minutes apart to see if a student’s blood alcohol content is rising, which could be a sign of acute alcohol poisoning.

“We’ve seen some very high BACs when we take people to the George Washington University Hospital,” Hay said. “Our goal is we don’t want to see anyone get badly hurt. You can die from it. It happens, unfortunately, on college campuses every year.”

In a survey of college students who drink, about half reported binge drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski said the trend is especially apparent among freshmen, and said GW is noticing increases on both the Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon campuses. Ambulances took 139 students to the emergency room for intoxication through the end of October this year – compared to 112 last fall and 82 during that time in 2010.

“I don’t think we have a definitive read on the pattern,” Konwerski said. “Whatever it is, we want to be cautious about it.”

Associate Dean of Students Tim Miller said he doesn’t know if the increases in alcohol transports are tied to the same number of students drinking more heavily or just more students drinking, but said his office will continue trying to stem dangerous behavior.

“You never want a student to touch the stove to realize that it’s hot,” Miller said. “Whatever we can do to educate students that the next drink is not the drink you need to take – before they take it – is always a better solution. But not everybody is willing to learn that way.”

Konwerski said the University is continuing to focus on education and awareness to ensure students can “celebrate, but are also safe” and aren’t overconsuming. In 2010, the University started the “Be Wiser” campaign, stepping away from harsh sanctions to refocus on alcohol education since the 2009 death of sophomore Laura Treanor, caused by alcohol poisoning.

Underage students who are transported to the hospital for excessive drinking face alcohol education, a conversation with a peer education and possibly a fine for their first violation.

The Center for Student Engagement escalated its awareness campaigns before historically big partying weekends, like Labor Day and Halloween, by offering educational materials to encourage responsible drinking. Students could also grab a slice of pizza and a bottle of water as they left their residence halls those weekends, while house staff organized events for students who wanted to avoid alcohol.

Alexis Janda, head of GW’s alcohol and drug office, said her staff is always looking for “new and creative ideas” and is promoting a new initiative to remind students to drink water and eat before going out, drink responsibly and stay with their friends.

Janda said her office is also amplifying its social media presence, but did not announce any major changes in prevention efforts.

“We wish there was a magic answer that encourages healthier decisions, but it takes a variety of approaches to impact a student community,” Janda said.

She and other officials said they will continue to work with student leaders to determine how to reduce the number of alcohol incidents.

The University has also reported a sharp uptick in alcohol violations during the first month of classes, which officials have called a “red zone” for dangerous drinking. The number of liquor law violations skyrocketed to 119 between move-in day and Sept. 30 this year, compared to 69 liquor law violations during that time frame three years ago.

S. Daniel Carter, a national campus security advocate, said a high number of violations does not necessarily translate to a culture of heavier drinking on that campus, relative to other colleges.

“Institutions that have more robust enforcement are going to have higher numbers. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have higher alcohol or other drug use,” Carter said. “It might not just be how many patrols, but where they patrol and how they respond to incidents when they come upon it.”

Police officers on some campuses do not cite students for violations unless they are acting belligerently or engaging in other criminal activity, Carter said, choosing to look the other way if that threshold is not reached. GW police officers have a bigger impact on the number of alcohol transports than at other campuses as they can overrule EMeRG medical technicians to send intoxicated students to the hospital.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.