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Student alcohol abuse is a familiar demon

11/19/2009

The Daily Trojan

By Nicole Dailo

In the United States, college life and alcohol consumption are seemingly inextricable. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, heavy drinking rates among college students, defined as the two-week prevalence of five or more drinks in a row, have changed little in the last 30 years, dropping from 45 percent in 1979 to only 41 percent in 2007.

This plateau in statistics has occurred despite outreach efforts, but USC officials said they remain committed to keeping students safe and informed while still encouraging them to have a memorable college experience.

“Although the majority of our students drink on some level, most of our students drink moderately or responsibly most of the time. Excessive drinking is not as pervasive as the perception would suggest it to be, but it does happen,” said Jenny Attanasio, a health educator for Health Promotion and Prevention Services at USC. “There’s policy pieces that fit into [addressing] it, there’s programmatic pieces that fit into it, there’s individual concentration and more of an educational focus.”

This interaction of the university environment with enforcement and educational efforts is the focus of a recent study conducted by Outside the Classroom, a company dedicated to addressing public health issues affecting education, government and corporate institutions.

The study attributed the continued presence of high-risk drinking on college campuses to the failure of many university administrations in making alcohol prevention an institutional priority. Outside the Classroom found that alcohol prevention, unlike sustainability initiatives, tends to receive little in terms of resources, funding, educational programs and support from senior administrators. According to the study, most universities assign the task of alcohol prevention to just one department, usually student affairs, instead of making it a campus-wide initiative.

“With most university strategic plans, you’ll see messaging in there about sustainability, but it’s almost an entire rarity that you will read anything about tackling high-risk drinking,” said Brandon Busteed, founder and CEO of Outside the Classroom. “We’re at a point now where everyone knows what their responsibility is for sustainability, and we don’t have that shared accountability for alcohol abuse. It’s a big difference between the two examples.”

The perception that many universities, including USC, direct more resources toward going green than toward alcohol prevention is common among students like Natasha Zouves, a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism.

“USC stays pretty uninvolved when it comes to students drinking. I think it’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” Zouves said. “The administration is aware that underage drinking is going on, but they don’t intervene.”

USC’s policies on alcohol use align with state and local statutes regarding alcohol consumption, and the Department of Public Safety along with Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards are responsible for enforcing those rules, DPS Capt. David Carlisle said. Like most universities, USC does its best to curb underage drinking, but carding students at large parties and tailgating events is both difficult and impractical, he added.

“Underage drinking is inappropriate, but realistically we know it occurs, so we try and regulate the consumption of alcohol as much as we practically can,” Carlisle said. “Picture three or four DPS officers and 300 students [at a party]. What in all practicality is the best way to handle that situation? Our goal is to get everyone safely home and make sure no one gets hurt, but sometimes it’s appropriate to cite students.”

SJACS Director Raquel Torres-Retana said alcohol-related violations, which range from underage possession of alcohol to disorderly conduct, comprise about one-third of the cases SJACS has handled so far this year. Many students are cited not for violating USC’s alcohol policies but for engaging in unruly behavior as a result of their alcohol consumption, she added.

As for punishing students who are cited, Torres-Retana said SJACS typically turns to educational programs before taking more serious action.

“Education is much more preferred than punitive [repercussions]. We do have standards we want our students to live up to, and if they violate those, we will work with them to try to get them back to good behavior,” she said. “But if the student keeps coming back to our office, then there may be punitive consequences.”

Even though the administration receives information from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism about how to address high-risk drinking on campus, the task of educating students and implementing other alcohol prevention strategies falls on HPPS, Attanasio said.

“If you had an ideal campus, I think it would be safe to say the upper administration should be able to set an agenda and then allow the folks in the workable places of whatever the subject matter is to do the work, but I really think it comes into play with resource allocation — whether that’s staff time, the number of staff who are professionally trained and capable and have the time in their day to focus on these areas, [or] actual dollar funds,” Attanasio said. “It’s just where priorities lie and what administrations think needs to happen on campus. I don’t think the involvement piece is so much in the tangible aspects but in the resource allocation.”

Currently, in conjunction with Student Affairs and DPS, HPPS promotes safe alcohol consumption practices through educational programming; counseling services and partnerships with local treatment centers; communication with senior administrators and annual distribution of USC Drug Free, a document detailing USC’s policies concerning alcohol and drug use, to students, staff and faculty, Attanasio said.

The most recognizable aspect of HPPS efforts for many USC students is Outside the Classroom’s “AlcoholEdu for College,” an online alcohol prevention program designed to inform college students about the dangers of high-risk drinking and to encourage them to make wise decisions about alcohol consumption. USC requires that all freshmen and transfer students complete the course.

According to an AlcoholEdu executive summary of key findings at USC, 72 percent of freshmen completed the entire course in 2007, with the percentage of students reporting they knew more than a “moderate amount” about the effects of alcohol increasing from 39 percent pre-survey to 77 percent post-survey.

But the report also indicated that 54 percent of drinkers who completed the course believed they did not need to change the way they used alcohol.

Vanessa Hyde, a freshman majoring in psychology, said she understands the university has a responsibility to educate students about alcohol consumption, but that students will ultimately decide for themselves if they want to alter their behavior.

“They can only do so much, but people will still do what they want. Everything depends on the individual and how much help they’re willing to take,” she said.

Most USC students’ drinking habits may help to explain the finding regarding behavior change, Attanasio said. Seventy-five percent of USC students reported having zero to four drinks the last time they socialized, and this number of drinks is not concerning as long as students pace their rate of consumption, Attanasio said.

Meng Yang, a second-year graduate student in landscape architecture, said he believes most students know how to regulate their drinking habits wisely.

“We can handle it. Alcohol is not our lives,” Yang said. “Everybody should know that because we’re all adults and we’re in college. We all have to take personal responsibility.”

But Zouves said she often sees students drinking to excess and that initiatives like AlcoholEdu are not enough to combat the problem.

“A lot of students don’t know their limits and think they’re invincible. I’ve seen a lot of parties where both guys and girls are drinking to a point where it’s unsafe,” Zouves said. “I do sometimes wish that students were safer, but I’m not sure it’s so much a USC problem as it is a problem of education.”

Attanasio said she believes USC’s efforts to inform students about safe alcohol consumption are far-reaching but that the dissemination of information does not fully address the issue of alcohol prevention. A lack of sufficient funding for HPPS to implement strategies aside from AlcoholEdu has limited how much the department can do, she added.

“Where I think things are lacking is the ability to have a completely comprehensive program at the level that would be needed for a population of 34,000 students,” Attanasio said. “There’s a piece of it that can be information-related, where if [students] know this information they may make a different choice, but the complicating piece in that is what will be the expectations in the environment.

“It’s not peer pressure, but it’s the norm with the folks they’re with or this is the norm in their culture. It’s situationally related and not necessarily this particular place, and students are having a hard time with that because they want to do what’s expected. But how do they do it safely?”