Michael Morgenstern ’08: New alcohol policies backfire

Increase in EMS calls over Spring Weekend illustrates failings of alcohol policy "reforms"

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

When I learned that the drug- and alcohol-related Emergency Medical Service calls doubled this Spring Weekend, I was in no way surprised or shocked. In fact, the change in tone of the weekend seemed perfectly clear to me the moment I arrived at Friday’s SpagFest party. The blowout party hosted by Zeta Delta Xi the Friday of every Spring Weekend is considered by many to be the highlight of the weekend’s festivities. This year, however, everything was different.

After Bill O’Reilly’s coverage of Sex Power God, the Brown administration scurried to respond to the negative attention and instituted a host of new rules such as requiring houses to charge per drink and start parties later. These rules were created in an honest attempt to make our social events safer.

Last year at SpagFest, there was no charge per drink, and the party began at 1 p.m. Students arrived sober in anticipation of drinking as much as they wanted. This year, drinks were sold at $1 per drink, and the party began later, at 4 p.m. Like they do for most Brown parties, students pre-gamed with large amounts of cheaper alcohol in advance of the parties.

Many in the crowd had already begun drinking when the party started, and countless others snuck alcohol in. By 5 p.m. many were already more intoxicated than last year. The previous SpagFest began with two hours of calm eating and drinking, but this year the eating area was barely utilized and many were kicked out for unruliness.

The enlightened Brown policy on alcohol up until last year had a simple premise: keep drinking on campus in a controlled environment and make students comfortable asking for help. The Brown social scene is largely on campus, and students here have a rare trust in authorities that allows us to be open and safe as we enjoy ourselves.

These policies, while enlightened, do not look as good in a fearful world where celebrity journalists seek to publicize the terrors of Ivy excess. The administration has therefore found new policies that look better but are ineffective practically. At first glance, a charge per drink appears to lower drinking to safe levels. In practice, though, the policy pushes drinking further underground and entices students to pre-game as much as possible before parties. Excessive pre-gaming was the exact factor that increased EMS calls at Sex Power God.

In the same vein, while a party that begins later looks safer to outsiders, the change is actually negative. Last year, the party ended at 5 p.m., and students had about four hours to eat dinner, shower and take a break. This year, many parties began at 9 p.m., so students who began to drink kept on drinking. The change promoted pre-gaming and didn’t allow for a break from drinking.

All of these issues were brought up to the administration by those running SpagFest, and while individual administrators tried to negotiate some kind of happy medium, there was no getting around those ironclad laws.

These changes brought people into the party who were already under the influence of alcohol, and the crowd quickly became unruly. The common room had to be emptied, and aggressive control was necessary to deal with the situation. Within hours, the crowd control and a pause in the alcohol distribution cleared out the party. Students left – to their rooms, to barbecues or to bars to drink more – and Spagfest was left a shell of its former glory. The party was just as fun, but the rules of the game had drastically changed.

Still, some of the new alcohol policies are right on track. The Late Night Fund that gives money to sponsor non-alcoholic events has the potential to transform the party culture of the campus if used properly. The increased officer presence made the weekend run more smoothly than last year.

Our open EMS policy is commendable, and we are immeasurably grateful to those who put it in place for the countless lives they saved. However, the current administration must understand that to keep the parents happy and the children safe, they must encourage safe drinking, not discourage drinking entirely. There are many examples of mistaken approaches to safety. Kegs slow down alcohol distribution, whereas cans can be distributed faster. But kegs have a negative image, so they have been forbidden. Parties with unlimited alcohol sound like drunken orgies, but they generally have long lines and distribute alcohol slower than parties where paying students are guaranteed quick service. Parents and the media deserve input into the discussion, but the final policy has to be realistic.

There are many possible changes to Brown’s alcohol policy that can make a real difference in student safety. To the administrators: Ensure that food is always provided with alcohol, as it was at SpagFest, and students will not get as sick. Allow groups throwing parties the autonomy to decide their pricing structure and management policies, and you will find they know best what will keep a student on campus. Change the culture of pre-gaming, not the culture of drinking, because in that endeavor you will be much more successful.

I’m not upset about my own personal experience with parties. I am upset that the administration believes it is necessary to micromanage parties to keep them safe. We all know why our liberal alcohol policy works, and few of us would take O’Reilly’s party management tips at face value. There are smart ways to keep students safe, and there are ways that look good. The administrators have always been our friends in running social events. Let’s hope we don’t lose our voices in the discussion.

Michael Morgenstern ’08 had a great time at SpagFest, thank you very much.

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