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Drinking it in: Alcohol culture draws new scrutiny

Amid concerns over binge drinking on campus, U. plans for external review of policies

The first in a two-part series exploring substance use and abuse at Brown.  

“I just kept drinking shots. Next thing I know, I woke up in a hospital,” recalled David, a senior.

It was a sunny May afternoon during sophomore year, and David, whose name has been changed to preserve anonymity, was drinking vodka outside with some close friends.

After David fell unconscious, his friends called Emergency Medical Services. When he woke up in a hospital bed, he was still heavily intoxicated and “could not fathom” or remember what had happened.

David’s experience highlights a culture of substance use at Brown centered on alcohol — one that is drawing heightened scrutiny from University administrators this year.

While students may see alcohol as less harmful than other substances, some administrators wonder if undergrads may be a bit too comfortable drinking. A Campus Life Advisory Board survey first announced at a December faculty meeting found that 45 percent of students binge drink, a figure administrators called significantly higher than the national average for full-time college students enrolled in two- or four-year universities.

Following those survey results, the advisory board has called for an external review of alcohol use at the University, said Frances Mantak ’88, director of health education.


A ‘concerning’ finding

The advisory board conducted its survey in conjunction with the Dartmouth Collaborative, a group of colleges and universities that examines heavy drinking on campuses.

The survey relied on the definition of binge drinking provided by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: the consumption of five or more drinks in two hours for men and four or more drinks in two hours for women, or the number of drinks typically required to raise someone’s blood alcohol concentration above 0.08 percent.

Thirty-six percent of nationwide respondents to the survey indicated that they binge drink, administrators said.

In comparison, finding that 45 percent of Brown students binge drink was “concerning,” said Allen Ward, senior associate dean for student life.

Mark Wood, professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island, and Bob Saltz, senior research scientist at the Prevention Research Center in Oakland, Calif., will visit campus for two days in May to conduct the external review of student drinking. They will talk to administrators, staff members and students about alcohol use on campus, in addition to reviewing the University’s alcohol policies, Saltz wrote in an email to The Herald.

“The external review will look at how we respond and help us see if we have in place the right kind of practices to identify and help intervene with students who are having difficulties around substance abuse,” Ward said. The researchers will produce a report illuminating what it means “to become part of the social fabric here with respect to alcohol,” he added.

The report’s findings could prompt the University to adjust its alcohol policies, Mantak said.

The University is trying to be as “transparent as possible” about the review, Ward said, but he added that administrators would have to discuss its findings before relaying them to the broader Brown community.


Binging at Brown

Administrators might be concerned that 45 percent of students reported having four or five drinks in two hours, but David said this amount is a “conservative” definition of binge drinking.

“I remember drinking nine, 10 drinks freshman year before even going out,” he said, adding that 45 percent of students “binge drinking” seems like a low estimate.

A Herald poll conducted March 3-4 found that about 85 percent of undergraduates drink alcohol.

“There’s so much alcohol around that if you can’t find it, you’re just not trying hard,” said Ryan, a junior in a fraternity whose name has been changed to maintain anonymity. For those older than 21, alcohol becomes “entrenched in every single event” in their social lives, he said, whether eating breakfast at Loui’s Family Restaurant or attending parties on Friday and Saturday nights.

Though most upperclassmen have reached the legal drinking age, Ryan said it is uncommon for juniors and seniors to drink to the point of getting sick. First-years who have not yet learned to pace themselves may be more likely to engage in binge drinking, he said.

“I don’t want to put on the image that once you’re a junior (or) senior you understand how it works and you don’t drink,” David said. “It becomes a different type of drinking once you’re a junior.

“My first two years here, the party culture was very centered around pregaming very hard and going to frat parties, dancing and hooking up. That was expected,” he said. But juniors and seniors are more likely to drink while hanging out with friends, he added.

The link between partying and drinking heavily may be a distinctive characteristic of the first-year experience.

“Because we were starting college, there was a need to up the ante and go hard every weekend,” David said, adding that as a first-year he felt “the sense that I would be a little excluded if I didn’t drink as much as other people or didn’t go out as often.”


‘Not a homogenous group’

Like first-years, athletes have a reputation for drinking heavily, but the truth of this stereotype is more widely debated.

“Even as seniors, we still have this perception of athletes as the biggest drinkers,” David said, but he added that he is not sure if the perception is accurate.

Nina, a sophomore varsity athlete whose name has been changed to preserve confidentiality, said she strongly disagrees with the idea that athletes drink more than other students.

“We’re not a homogenous group,” she said. “You can’t say that all athletes drink the same.”

Male athletes drink no more than fraternity brothers at the parties they throw, Nina said. “They are drinking a lot. Men are chanting. It’s basically identical.”

Though her team’s bonding activities — such as “Beer Olympics” and pregaming large parties — incorporate alcohol, Nina said her teammates have never pressured her to drink or made drinking a mandatory part of any event.

Tyler, a sophomore varsity athlete whose name has been changed to maintain anonymity, said he thinks drinking facilitates team bonding. “It definitely helps bring the team together,” he said. “If you’re trying to have a team bonding experience and you want to do something fun, alcohol is the really cheap, easy thing to do.”

Though Tyler also said he has never felt pressure to drink, he added that staying sober can be isolating when all his teammates are partying. “People are in a different world when they’re drunk, and (sober teammates) just don’t feel like a part of that.”

Many students cited fraternities as popular drinking destinations.

“I think on average, fraternities do drink more than the average student group,” said Luke, a junior fraternity brother whose name has been changed to maintain anonymity.

But higher drinking rates may occur among many tight-knit student groups on campus, not just fraternities, he said. “If we were at a university that didn’t have a Greek system, you would see a stigma associated with the athletic teams for drinking more, I would imagine, but also with groups like a cappella … (that) comprise a more consistent friend group.”

Men are more likely to binge drink than women, according to the advisory board’s survey. Brown’s female binge drinking rate is comparable to that of the other universities surveyed, but the male rate is significantly higher than the national average.

“Sometimes (drinking) becomes a competition,” David said, adding that male students may drink more to embody “the perception of a tough college guy.”


Beyond the bottle

It’s the first day of the spring semester, and Ryan walks into the room of a student he has never met. The first thing he sees is a desk covered in cocaine and molly.

“You have too much money, but thank you,” he recalled thinking as he indulged in the substances.

“It was a lot of fun and it was really cool,” he said, adding that he may repeat the experience over Spring Weekend, when use of less common drugs tends to peak on campus.

To Ryan, drugs like cocaine and methylone, a variant of molly, are just a quick route to euphoria and are not necessarily more harmful than alcohol.

Though most undergrads do not use such hard drugs regularly, marijuana has a firmer hold on campus, according to the results of a spring 2013 Herald poll.

After alcohol, marijuana is the most commonly used illegal substance on campus, with almost 49 percent of poll respondents reporting they had used it in the past year.

About 69 percent of undergrads favor the drug’s legalization, while about 14 percent disapprove, according to this semester’s Herald poll.

“Brown has a reputation as a college of people who smoke a lot,” David said. “I don’t want to say it’s entirely accurate, but I do know a large number of people that smoke.”

Though marijuana use is widely accepted, it is also “polarizing,” David said, as some people “swear by it” while others viscerally reject it as immoral.

Ryan said that, despite some stigma attached to smoking marijuana, both alcohol and marijuana are “equal-opportunity drugs” that are not limited to certain groups based on money or connections.

Some students said in certain social situations, marijuana may be more accepted than alcohol.

“If you went high to class or went high to the gym, then that’s your thing, but if you went drunk to class or drunk to the gym, you’re going a little bit hard,” Ryan said.

Unlike alcohol, marijuana use seems more common among upperclassmen than among first-years, David said, adding that students may become more comfortable with marijuana after a couple of years on campus.

Hallucinogenic mushrooms, cocaine, LSD and amphetamines — including study drugs like Adderall — are each used by about 4 to 6 percent of undergrads, according to last spring’s Herald poll.

Spring Weekend often marks a period of greater student experimentation with substances.

Drugs are especially easy to find around Spring Weekend, when those who sell them increase their inventories to meet a high demand, Ryan said.

“I know people who only consider using molly or acid during Spring Weekend because Spring Weekend is a time when everybody feels it appropriate and okay to let loose more than the norm,” David said.

Greek, program and sports houses may be hot spots for less prevalent drugs because these communities “have networks of communication that are tighter and are consequently more capable of pushing them in the first place,” Ryan said.

Ryan and Luke, both fraternity brothers, attributed the frequency of substance use in fraternities to the tight-knit relationships among the brothers, rather than the personalities of the users.


Policy in practice

Administrators stressed that the University’s drug and alcohol policy is built around awareness and safety, not punishment.

The EMS process is free and confidential for students, administrators said. After being EMSed, students are required to speak to a Health Services staff member about why the incident occurred and how to drink responsibly.

“We promote that we provide medical attention for drug (or) alcohol consumption and the opportunity for evaluation without any disciplinary consequences to prioritize students’ health and safety,” wrote Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services and interim dean of the College, in an email to The Herald. “We usually make a big push to get this information out broadly before Spring Weekend.”

EMS coordinators did not respond to requests for comment on the service’s policies and procedures.

Though the Department of Public Safety always arrives with EMS, its main concern is students’ health, not discipline, said Paul Shanley, deputy chief of DPS. “Our first and foremost issue is to make sure that students get the necessary medical treatment.”

Some students incorrectly believe they will be referred to Psychological Services after being EMSed. But this is not a requirement, said Sherri Nelson, director of Psychological Services. “If, in the context of talking with a student (who has been EMSed), the person interviewing them picks up on some psychological issues, then they’re going to come see us.”


‘Keeping students safe’

Being EMSed “really made me start thinking about if drinking as heavily and as frequently as I did was worth it,” David said.

“I was very lucky to have friends who sent me to the hospital,” he said, adding that he appreciated that EMS and the University did not notify his parents of the incident, though the hospital sent them a bill.

A majority of students are comfortable calling EMS, according to this semester’s Herald poll. Only 4 percent of respondents said they have refrained from calling EMS because they feared disciplinary action, while 8 percent indicated they have declined to call for a friend for the same reason.

Compared to students at some peer institutions, Brown undergrads are less likely to worry about the disciplinary consequences of seeking medical help. A spring 2013 Yale College Council survey found that around 15 percent of Yale undergrads had chosen not to seek medical help while intoxicated due to fear of punishment, and 19 percent had not called for a friend for the same reason, the Yale Daily News reported last year.

David’s first year on College Hill was the “only time” he said he could imagine having been afraid to call EMS.

None of Nina’s teammates have been EMSed during her time at Brown, she said. But if the need arises, she and her teammates have no qualms about calling for help. “EMS is free, and also it’s confidential, and we all know that,” she said.

Tyler said his teammates get EMSed occasionally but do not fear disciplinary consequences or their coach’s reaction to an emergency room trip. “It helps that you don’t face any disciplinary charges,” he said. “People are more responsible about it, and definitely aren’t that afraid to seek medical help.”

Luke said his fraternity brothers are comfortable calling EMS for brothers or students attending their parties. But they accompany students requiring medical attention out of their building before EMS arrives on the scene in order to minimize the risk of probation for the fraternity, he said.

Fraternities are liable to receive disciplinary action for incidents in their on-campus buildings that violate the Code of Student Conduct.

“We take certain precautions before we EMS somebody, such as take them outside before we EMS them, or take them to their dorm before they’re EMSed,” he said.

Several student groups strive to educate undergrads about substance use, ramping up their efforts around Spring Weekend.

“We try and teach people how fast your body processes alcohol and what physiological differences impact how much you can safely drink,” said Gordon Wade ’15, a leader of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a group advocating for reform of drug laws. He added that he thinks the University does a good job educating students about substance safety and keeping its policies non-punitive.

“At some schools, you can get in a lot of trouble if you or one of your friends has to have medical attention for drinking or drug use,” Wade said. The University “places a much higher priority on keeping students safe and on getting people medical attention if they need it.”


The second article in this series will appear tomorrow, spotlighting issues of drug dependency among Brown students.

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