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A Drive Against Drinking

July 26, 2005

A combination of law enforcement and peer education has reduced alcohol abuse throughout the California State University System, according to a report prepared for the Board of Trustees. 

The exact steps taken vary from campus to campus, but all involve increased enforcement by police and campus security, and "social norms" marketing, which teaches students that not everyone drinks to fit in. 

"All of the campuses are unique, and we want them all taking a comprehensive look at what fits their particular situation," said Colleen Bentley-Adler, a California State spokeswoman. 

As campuses across the nation have struggled with controlling student drinking, some have leaned heavily on law enforcement, which can strike students as heavy handed, and others exclusively on social norms programs, which inform students that their peers actually drink less than they might think, and thus they should not feel the need to drink to fit in. Some studies of social norms education found no decrease in drinking, and critics contend that such programs might even be counterproductive. “In some cases, we did find more students drinking,” said Henry Wechsler, a leading researcher on campus drinking at the Harvard School of Public Health. “You tell students that average students drink four drinks not six, and the message is: average students drink." 

But Cal State officials, pointing to decreased binge drinking on many campuses, based on self-reporting, think that by combining social norms approaches with community and law enforcement programs, they may have succeeded where others have failed.  

The Alcohol Policies and Prevention Programs began after an 18-year-old fraternity member on the Chico State campus died of alcohol poisoning in 2000. Chancellor Charles B. Reed decided something had to be done. Campuses in the California State system received grants, from private and state sources, to develop methods of reducing alcohol related problems. 

One of the most effective initiatives, Cal State officials said, came from collaborating with the California Office of Traffic Safety, which spread $750,000 over eight campuses in an effort to recruit peer educators for social norms programs, and to help law enforcement personnel and alcohol servers recognize potentially dangerous situations. 

According to the report, which notes that the final tally of results from various campuses is not complete, the effect was pronounced on some campuses. California State at Monterey Bay reported a 13 percent decrease in drunk driving since 2003. Officers in the campus police department said they have stepped up enforcement of public drunkenness laws to try to catch would-be drivers before they take the wheel.

The department made 47 alcohol related arrests in 2003, and 107 in 2004. The police were a greater presence at the on-campus cabaret, and around student housing. As a result, officials said, while more pedestrians were arrested for alcohol related offenses, drunken driving arrests were down.

However, that was not the case at every campus. A few campuses reported increases in drunken driving. The report attributed any increases to “increased enforcement and/or increased student population,” but did not provide statistics to back up that assertion. Wechsler added that, while he is skeptical about the effectiveness of social norms programs by themselves, working with the community and policing alcohol outlets in addition to education seem to be the only things that have worked so far. “It’s a complex problem, and it takes time and a comprehensive solution,” Wechsler said, noting that California State does seem to be going far beyond social norms programs.

Beyond statistics, some California State officials say they have noticed a change. Perry Angle, director of the university's Alcohol and Traffic Safety progra, said he has seen much better policing of sporting events, especially in terms of avoiding fights and keeping drunks from getting behind the wheel. He said he has also noticed that, through peer education efforts, more fraternity members have begun to assume responsibility for their brothers by acting as designated driver. 

“If somebody had to stay home and be the designated driver, maybe we can get them pizza and soda to not make it so bad,” Angle said. “Rather than something that isn’t cool, some students are starting to see it as, ‘I’ve got my brother’s back, I’m concerned about his safety.’ ” Angle added that educating people who serve drinks has gone a long way toward keeping obviously inebriated people from getting more to drink. “We educated beverage servers at pubs and sporting events about the personal liability issues involved with serving drunk students and underage students. They need to know the liability is pretty severe.” 

Still, some students hardly perceive a change. “In the Greek community, more people have gotten in trouble,” said Brea Jones, news editor at The Orion, the student newspaper on the Chico campus. Jones said the bars near campus -- there are 56 of them -- generally are vigilant about checking ID’s. But, otherwise, “outside the Greek community, I haven’t seen a systemic change,” she added.

Clearly, some problems persist. This winter a fraternity pledge died when members of the Greek organization, who were apparently drinking, forced the pledge to drink water until he died. Next fall, all fraternity parties at Chico will be dry.

 

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