As alcohol-related EMS calls rise, drug stats remain inconclusive

By
Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Department of Public Safety’s annual crime report, released in September, shows a continuing upward trend in students’ use of Emergency Medical Services for treatment of alcohol intoxication – with a 48 percent spike in 2006 – and a stable number of students referred for disciplinary action due to drug or alcohol violations.

The statistics, taken from DPS’ federally mandated annual crime report, show EMS responded to 228 calls for alcohol-intoxicated undergraduates in 2006, up from 154 in 2005. Twenty-one students received disciplinary referrals for drug violations, up from nine the year before. Eighty students received referrals for alcohol violations, down from 103 the previous calendar year.

Even though the statistics show basic trends, it’s difficult to know what the numbers really say about students’ alcohol and drug use, University officials told The Herald.

For example, student life officials tied the 12-person increase in drug-related disciplinary referrals to just two incidents in which several students were caught at once, said Margaret Klawunn, associate vice president for campus life and dean of student life. “If there are eight people in a room and a bong, they all get reported,” she said.

With respect to drugs, the number of students arrested or receiving disciplinary referrals has dropped steadily over the past few years, with 108 drug-related referrals in 2003 but only 21 last year. Mark Porter, chief of police and director of public safety, said it’s not clear why students are getting referred less.

“With drugs, there’s so much of a search-and-seizure issue,” Porter said. “I’m going to assume students are respecting city ordinances and our laws as well as University policy.”

“Our officers also don’t patrol residence halls,” he added. “They respond to calls.”

According to Klawunn, DPS patrolled residence halls in 2003 and before. When regular dorm patrols stopped in 2004, drug-related disciplinary referrals dropped 92.5 percent. “We know there are things we’re not catching,” Klawunn said.

Klawunn said residential peer leaders and community directors now receive more training on how to respond to students who may be using drugs. RPLs and CDs can deal with students creating a disturbance themselves or call DPS for support. “We had a very specific conversation with (CDs) back in August about what the expectations are,” Klawunn said.

“I tried talking to students. Knock on the door, say you smelled something and wanted to make sure there were no drugs involved,” said Claire Santoro ’09, who was a residential counselor last year in Keeney Quadrangle. “Sometimes you would get students who were unresponsive or wouldn’t open the door. It would continue to be a problem, so we would call DPS and have them talk to the students. Then they basically have to open the door.”

Frances Mantak, director of health education, said Health Services’ surveys provide some guidance on students’ drug use and indicate that students use alcohol in the highest numbers, followed by marijuana. Fewer than 10 percent surveyed said they have used other drugs in the past year.

Reasons for the rise in EMS calls are also unclear. Though the statistics might suggest that more students are drinking, Klawunn said she believes the increase indicates that students are more confident about calling for help. “The numbers may not have gone down, but if they’ve gone up we know we’re doing better at keeping people out of harm’s way,” Klawunn said.

“I find it a little surprising,” Santoro said. “I didn’t notice it so much last year. The sense I got was mostly that students may have been doing a lot of partying or drinking, but they seem to be drinking responsibly. Judging from the numbers, my instinct would be to say maybe they weren’t doing the drinking in the dorms, so I didn’t notice it. Maybe they were doing the drinking at parties.”

Klawunn said it’s not surprising more students are using EMS because the University has focused on a “harm-reduction” strategy that includes targeting drinking-heavy events like Sex Power God and Spring Weekend for more EMS coverage, reducing risk by educating students and providing amnesty to students who are intoxicated and need medical attention.

“We’re not a dry campus,” Klawunn said. “Our aim is to keep students safe and intervene when there’s a problem. … There are other schools taking a harder line, but most are going in the direction of amnesty and harm-reduction.”

Mantak said the number of students seeking EMS treatment has been increasing for the past five years. But she said she’s unsure whether the numbers really indicate students are more comfortable calling EMS for help. “I see the culture around calling EMS as pretty stable. That’s something that gets passed on year to year,” she said.

Mantak said one reason EMS statistics may be trending upward is that students are coming to college under a different set of circumstances. “If people are coming to college receiving psychological care, more people are using medications, and that could cause more reactions with alcohol,” she said.

EMS calls also don’t necessarily reflect the full range of ways intoxicated students seek treatment. Some students walk into Health Services, while about 10 percent receive treatment from Providence EMS, Mantak said. At high-traffic events like Sex Power God, students may receive on-site treatment that isn’t always included in the statistics.

Mantak added that the methodology behind the statistics has stayed the same over time, and while individual numbers are difficult to interpret, there’s a noticeable, “concerning trend.”

That upward trend contrasts with a recent study showing that high school seniors are binge drinking at the lowest levels in 30 years. The 2001 Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study found that the number of college students who say they binge drink – nearly 45 percent – has stayed fairly stable since 1993.

Students who receive EMS treatment for the first time are required to meet with Mantak or another health education staff member to discuss alcohol use in general, the night of hard partying that led to the student’s treatment and methods for safe alcohol use. Klawunn said students who are referred a second time can face disciplinary action, though Mantak said the recidivism rate has stayed steady at about 10 percent.