When ‘Dry’ is Better
Catholic campuses wrestling with problem drinking
BY James Malerba
February 21-27, 1999 Issue | Posted 2/21/97 at 2:00 PM
The epidemic of drinking on college campuses has fueled more than its share of jokes in recent years.
This month it turned deadly.
A student at Southwest Texas State who had drunk himself unconscious was bludgeoned to death at a party where beer was plentiful and available to underage students, according to a report Feb. 9 in the Austin American-Statesman.
Another student was hospitalized for acute blood poisoning, the paper added. The next day, it reported that the chief suspect in the assault apparently had killed himself because of the incident. He was a 21-year-old student who witnesses said was involved in a fight at the party.
The incident is a harsh example of the growing problems linked to campus drinking, which yearly claim 30 student lives, according to a recent Harvard University study.
College drinking often seems to start out innocent, and often among “good kids.” The victim of the bludgeoning, for instance, was remembered for his “faith in Jesus and love of other people.” But the volatile mix of youth and alcohol can quickly lead to other problems, including violence, drunken driving, “date rape,” and emotional distress, as well as poor academic performance and job-related difficulties.
One student who found out the downside of drinking was Danielle Acunto. A junior at The Catholic University of America (CUA), she was passed over for a resident assistant's job because of alcohol use.
“I'm not against drinking, but it's not something I want to poison my body with anymore,” she said. “I stopped drinking because I didn't know my limitations until I was told by others I had passed them.”
After cutting out alcohol, Acunto turned herself around and became president of the Residence Association. While admitting that drinking at CUA will likely continue, she said she wants to see it in a controlled situation. “Then, you'll have sober people looking after everyone else, and it has to help,” she said.
Catholic colleges like hers have developed a number of policies and procedures to alert students to the dangers of overconsumption. Residence assistants and other students are trained to spot the symptoms of heavy drinkers and take measures to help such persons.
Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio is often cited as a success story in this regard. The campus once known chiefly for its parties is now known for its Catholic life.
Randy Cirner, dean of students, said the school discourages alcohol consumption in several ways: “It's set down in our student handbook, and there's no alcohol served at any student function.”
Cirner also pointed out that incoming students in the fall semester participate in programs that emphasize the university's stand on heavy or regular drinking. If a student is underage and is caught drinking, he or she is referred to a residential director, who has the authority to issue a warning or sanction.
“We consider alcohol abuse, particularly by underage students, a major violation of the student code,” Cirner said.
A student receiving two violations in one semester is suspended for the following semester. If that student is caught again after being readmitted, he or she is expelled.
“We don't condone drinking,” Cirner said, “but we know it takes place. However, we probably have less of a problem than state schools, because we have a ‘pure culture’ that says drinking only leads to other problems, such as sex, pregnancy, and other serious issues.”
“I stopped drinking because I didn't know my limitations until I was told by others I had passed them.”
Providing alternatives to drinking is a step some Catholic colleges have taken to lessen the temptation to imbibe. St. Mary's University of Minnesota, in Winona, has what it calls a Baccus Group. It meets in a campus building where no beer, wine, or hard alcohol is ever served. Instead, students drink “mocktails,” or engage in other non-drinking activities, including sumo wrestling.
“Several of our students commented to me that we should provide a place where they can drink responsibly,” said Sharon Goo, vice president of student development. “Others said there is no way alcohol should even be brought onto our campus. While we do have a few students with serious drinking problems, most of our students who do drink, do so in moderation, and only occasionally.”
St. Mary's is not a “dry” campus, but underage students are not allowed to drink at all. Those age 21 or over can bring alcohol into their dorm rooms but cannot consume it anywhere else.
Underage drinkers tend to develop drinking problems, Goo said. “They either wise up or are asked to leave,” she said.
But more than policies, peer pressure can often be a more powerful force. “A roommate can really be a motivating factor,” Goo said, “because he or she becomes sick of the other roommate coming home drunk and vomiting all over the place.”
Marc Scott, president of student government at Steubenville, agreed. He said peer pressure is evident at his school, and he has seen many students cut off beer or alcohol to another student who has had a few too many.
“Our resident assistants are very alert to drinking problems,” he said, “but friends of the drinking student are equally alert.”
Scott, who attended an East Coast state school in his freshman year before transferring, said the difference between the two universities regarding alcohol consumption is “like night and day.” He added that if students in a group go out and know there will be drinking, they always first designate a non-drinking driver.
Moderation in the use of alcohol is called for by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
It states: “The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine” (No. 2290). It also addresses the issue of drug use, in No. 2291: “The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense.”
Vincentian Fr. David O'Connell, president of CUA, said the issue of alcohol use and abuse among undergraduates nationwide has reached alarming proportions. He said students and their peer groups “must be encouraged and supported in their efforts to combat the problem among themselves.”
Fr. O'Connell is actively involved in seeking to curb drinking on his campus. In January, he met with two large student groups to discuss the problem and was impressed by their willingness to “lead the charge against student abuse of alcohol.”
Fr. Robert Friday, also of CUA, said the school has hired a director of wellness, Kelly Long, to focus on the problem of alcohol consumption. “We're an urban campus, and students have access to any number of places that serve alcohol,” he said. “Catholics have never been prohibitionists, but our students need to respect the law that prohibits underage drinking.”
Long, upon arriving on the CUA campus, put together a task force on alcohol use, comprising faculty, staff, and students. At the end of this academic year, she and other task force members will report to Fr. Friday on the services available or needed to keep alcohol consumption under control.
One Catholic school that does not allow drinking on campus is Magdalen College in Warner, New Hampshire. With just 70 students, admissions director Paul Sullivan said, it is much easier to monitor drinking.
“In our American culture, which promotes pleasure at all cost, we teach our students to be responsible in every aspect of their lives,” he explained. “Our students here are close and form really good friendships. So, they are willing to forsake alcohol.”
Magdalen students can drink off campus, but cannot come back on campus inebriated. Penalties depend on the severity of the offense, Sullivan added, though drinking is not a major problem at the school.
At the University of San Francisco (USF), a Jesuit-run school, Carmen Jordan-Cox, vice president of student affairs, said that when she arrived 12 years ago, there was “a lot” of alcohol use. “We're now less ‘wet’ than we used to be,” she added.
Of the more than 8,000 students at USF, only about 1,500 live on campus — where the Grog has served beer to 21-year-old students throughout much of the university's history. The university is strict in its monitoring of resident students and their drinking and takes action when incidents occur, especially among freshmen away from home for the first time.
“I or others will have a heart-to-heart talk with a freshman who has a drinking problem,” she said. “We had one young man ... who had such a problem. With our counseling, he turned himself around and graduated.”
Jordan-Cox said she perceives a lack of communication within many families today. She said in many homes there is a serious role-model problem, and students come to the university patterning themselves after what they have learned at home.
“We have to be very careful about the signals we send our children,” she said. “Whatever a child sees his or her parents doing is seen as being OK. That can include excessive drinking. Responsibility for our actions must be taught by parents, not by a college.”
Jim Malerba writes from Hamden, Connecticut.
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