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Only 23% of USU students drink; most who get in trouble are underage

May 2nd, 2013 Posted in Opinion

Story and photo by Paul Christiansen

LOGAN — Not long ago Manda Perkins was a self-described party girl. While enrolled as a freshman at Utah State University last year, Perkins could often be found taking part in nights of underage binge drinking, a habit she thought must be part of a typical college lifestyle.

“There was one night last year when I lived in Richards Hall when I’d been smoking and drinking,” Perkins said. “I was really cross-faded” — under the influence of multiple substances — “and I remember lying in my bed feeling like I was having a heart attack.”

A binge-drinker's drug of choice is alcohol, any kind. Photo by Paul Christiansen.

A binge-drinker’s drug of choice is alcohol of any kind. Photo by Paul Christiansen.

No one could know, Perkins said, especially someone in a position of authority. Despite being in a potentially life-threatening situation, she felt the risk of getting into trouble was too great. Lying in the dark, counting her own racing heartbeats, Perkins slowly fell asleep.

USU census data from 2011 shows Perkins was in a minority at the university, said Ryan Barfuss, a prevention specialist with the USU Student Health and Wellness Center. “Seventy-seven percent of USU students have never used alcohol,” he said. “That leaves a very small number — only 23 percent — that does use alcohol.”

Barfuss said those percentages are almost completely opposite of national averages. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has estimated more than 80 percent of American youth consume alcohol before reaching the age of 21.

“Even though we don’t have a majority of people who drink, that doesn’t mean we’re exempt from having problems here with alcohol,” Barfuss said. “I really try to emphasize the dangers of alcohol poisoning and how to be a good bystander. It’s one of our biggest concerns for students without much experience with alcohol and so we want them to be aware of the signs and symptoms of it.”

Barfuss and the other Student Health and Wellness Center staff want students like Perkins to realize they don’t have to hide dangerous situations. Although there have been only three reported incidents involving USU students and alcohol poisoning since fall semester 2012, officials at USU are still aware of the gravity of those situations, he said.

“We don’t want a replay of past events,” Barfuss said, “because some of those have been pretty scary — and tragic.”

One of the most prominent points in recent USU history occurred in 2008 when Michael Starks, an 18-year-old student, was bound with cords and forced to drink vodka during rush activities at the Sigma Nu fraternity. He died of alcohol poisoning after consuming four times Utah’s legal limit of alcohol.

Barfuss said the university now sends out letters to the parents of all incoming freshmen before the start of each new school year, encouraging them to talk to their kids.

“I want the parents to talk to the students beforehand about alcohol use, about what their stance is on alcohol use and what they expect as parents,” Barfuss said. “If I can get the parents involved instead of just shipping the students off and saying ‘Good luck and have fun,’ it’s a huge win for us. We can’t do it all and I can’t have face-to-face contact with every student who comes here.”

Though the Starks incident was brought to public attention by widespread media coverage, said Capt. Steven Milne of the USU police, other small-scale incidents still occur. In 2012, 58 total arrests for liquor-law violations were made by USU police; a year before there were only 50.

>> “The largest part of liquor-law violations in the USU community involves underage students, and are in on-campus housing locations,” Milne said. “It makes sense, given the demographic. Kids come to college for four or five years. They start at the age of 18 and three of those years are under the legal drinking age.”

Being away from parents for the first time contributes heavily to the underage drinking problem, Milne said. “These students are finally left on their own to be able to make the choices they want to make. Usually the friends they are associating with are also doing these things. They want to be a part of that crowd. When they were living at home their parents would check up on them and monitor them. Here they don’t have that.”

In cases of underage drinking and on-campus violations, USU police work closely with the Student Health and Wellness Center and the Housing and Residence Life department. Efforts by these USU agencies are meant to benefit students by helping them recognize their behavior affects not only them but others as well.

“If we talk to these students in question and teach them about the impact on their health, it lets them know that we are concerned for their health and well-being,” said Whitney Milligan, director of Residence Life.

Underage students caught with alcohol are automatically referred to Barfuss at the Wellness Center. From there, Barfuss said, the center tries to keep in close contact with housing resident advisers and staff, informing them of what their best options are when handling a student who needs some help.

“They’re on the frontline and they are working with the students face-to-face,” Barfuss said. “It’s definitely helpful to me to have them know what’s going on and be able to come to us.”

After referral, students are put through a series of questionnaires to gauge the level of their drinking behaviors. This process helps to identify if the student suffers from any drinking behaviors and tendencies that could be dangerous to them or others.

“We give the student an assessment to figure out if they have serious issues with alcohol use or if it’s just a one-time deal when they got caught,” Barfuss said. “The assessment gives me an idea of what will work best for the student and if they need educational classes or one-on-one counseling. Sometimes the individual might need treatment.”

Underage students caught and cited for drinking are often mandated by either the university or a judge to complete a four-week class consisting of about eight hours of classroom education, Barfuss said. But the classroom education focuses on more than just encouraging abstinence.

“It’s much more than talking about abstinence and saying ‘OK, you’re 18, you can’t drink,’” Barfuss said. “Instead of that approach we talk about specific guidelines and skills they can use right now and also when they turn 21 to keep them at low risk of having health problems.”

The class gives students the opportunity to learn guidelines for drinking habits, Barfuss said, and how to properly identify symptoms of alcohol poisoning. “They’ll learn what tolerance level and trigger level are,” he said. “They learn what a standard drink is. They’ll learn about family history and how that ties in and has an impact. It’s meant to benefit the student rather than chastise them.”

>> USU police take underage drinking very seriously, Milne said. “If you’re underage and we find you, you’ll be cited.

“That’s a criminal matter,” Milne said. “If you’re of legal age and you’re found to have alcohol on campus, that’s a housing policy violation and more of a civil violation. What we do at that point is seize the alcohol and write a report. A copy of that report goes to housing and they’ll follow up with the individual and take the proper action.”

Milligan said she expects to have a few alcohol-related incidents in on-campus housing each year despite USU being an alcohol-free campus.

“It just comes with the territory,” Milligan said. “We work with college students, after all.”

To make students aware of all rules relating to alcohol, housing supplies them with a behavioral contract. “With students who are underage, it’s three strikes and they’re evicted,” Milligan said. “We also communicate all of this to the campus conduct officer and they might call the student in and talk to them about a student code violation in addition to just a housing policy violation. In housing we don’t ever make a decision whether a student is suspended from school but we can make the decision about when someone is evicted from housing.”

USU police are also contacted in the case of underage drinkers.

“A lot of the arrests that we make are on-campus housing locations,” Milne said. “People have been found with alcohol and that presents two scenarios: first, underage drinking; and second, housing doesn’t allow alcohol. Most college students are under the age of 21 to start with. We are frequently called by housing for those types of problems.”

Milligan, Barfuss and Milne all agreed students most likely to take part in underage drinking are incoming freshmen.

“It’s our goal to make students successful, well-rounded human beings,” Milligan said. “You learn your academic things in the classroom but you learn how to interact with other people, how to communicate and how to take responsibility living in your community.”

Milne has noticed an increase in law enforcement policies and strategies aimed at discouraging underage drinking.

“Minor-in-possession charges have drastically increased as far as the penalty of the crimes,” Milne said. “When I first started, if you were underage and got arrested it was a $50 fine. Now you’re looking at a fine around $525, a mandatory counseling class that the courts require you to take and your license is usually suspended until you complete that course.

“By the time you pay for the fine and the counseling and to get your license reinstated, you’re up to $700 or $800,” Milne said. “If you’re a student that’s paying for your own school, that’s a good chunk of a semester of credits or books. If your parents are paying for that, the last thing they want to hear is that you need money to pay for a criminal charge.”

But in a community of students, the majority of which do not participate in alcohol consumption, it’s commonplace to keep the activities hushed, Perkins said. Students think it’s more important to avoid getting caught — and in the process accrue hefty fines, possible evictions and behavioral counseling — than to avoid dangerous behavior.

Perkins, now a sophomore, quit drinking after the night she drifted to sleep while counting the heartbeats she hoped wouldn’t be her last.

“I couldn’t keep up with that lifestyle,” she said. “We tried to be smart about it but, to be honest, I guess there’s nothing really smart about underage drinking.”


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