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ND drinking habits not affected by ban

Marcela Berrios | Thursday, April 26, 2007

Editor’s note: This is the second story in a three-part series examining the use and abuse of alcohol at Notre Dame, the University’s attempts to solve alcohol-related problems and the future of the campus’ drinking culture.

In the summer of 2002, Notre Dame banned hard alcohol on its campus, and infuriated students said the changes in the University’s policy would not curb their drinking habits. Five years later, those students have graduated, but their successors are still upholding that vow, as the number of students that used or abused alcohol in 2006 approximate the 2002 figures, the Office of Drug and Alcohol Education (ODAE) said Tuesday.

Annie Eaton, an ODAE assessment counselor, said the number of students referred to her office dropped immediately after the announcement of the ban on liquor – but the lull did not last.

“There was a change after the policy was implemented,” Eaton said. “Students were afraid of the consequences in the beginning. They did cut down on their alcohol ingestion for some time, but when they got over their initial fear of the new consequences, the numbers of referrals were back on the rise.”

Eaton said students quickly discovered that the fines they feared were only being levied per bottle of alcohol, and “since mostly students can afford to pay those fines,” they returned to their previous practices.

Associate Vice President of Residence Life Bill Kirk confirmed Eaton’s observations, saying approximately 60 percent of the disciplinary cases that go through his office every year are related to alcohol use and abuse – a statistic that has remained “roughly consistent” in the last five years.

The University, however, did not expect the 2002 modifications to convert students to sobriety, Vice President for Student Affairs Father Mark Poorman said.

“It was never our belief that the changes to the alcohol policy would solve all of our problems,” he said. “We have seen some drop in our binge-drinking rates since the changes five years ago. But there is clearly more work to be done.”

Rather than reduce the number of students who consume alcohol, Kirk said, the changes were made to teach students about healthy drinking limits “through rules and regulations.”

“Residence Life is intimately involved in the students’ education, just like any other department at the University – second only to the faculty,” Kirk said. “And one of the things you’ll learn in college is how to act responsibly and maturely.”

He said the changes in the policy clarified the guidelines his office uses to intervene in cases where a student’s use or abuse of alcohol may be destructive.

“Do [the changes] mean that the use and abuse of alcohol among students have declined?” Kirk said. “No, I don’t think so – but I think we are better equipped with the rules and regulations that we have in place to address problems and issues with the use of alcohol.”

Unfulfilled prophecies

On March 18, 2002, Poorman sent students an e-mail explaining the upcoming ban on liquor and other changes to the University campus guidelines, including the termination of dances inside the residence halls.

“Hall staffs spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy addressing behavior related to alcohol,” Poorman said in the letter.

In the following days, students voiced their dissatisfaction, rallying more than 600 protesters outside LaFortune Student Center to burn copies of duLac, the student handbook, and bear signs that read “Save Liquor.”

A second demonstration brought more than 100 angry students to the steps of the Main Building at midnight on a weekday. Protesters hurled beer bottles at the windows before scattering at the arrival of Notre Dame Security/Police.

They also sent Poorman a petition with more than 4,000 signatures and a letter that summarized the thoughts and objections of the student body, including fears that taking hall dances elsewhere would threaten dorm traditions and unity.

Before 2002, dances were hosted in the 24-hour spaces of residence halls, but Poorman said few students remained in those spaces during the dances. Students would, instead, go upstairs and host their own dances in their rooms – forcing the hall staff to scatter to try to monitor the entire building, he said. The sparse supervision gave way to cases of vandalism, sexual and physical assault and alcohol intoxication across the hall, Poorman said.

After the changes were announced, students said moving the dances to off-hall venues would drive more students off campus, but the percentage of on-campus students did not change, staying at 80 percent throughout the last five years, according to the Office of Residence Life and Housing.

“The predictions that students would move off campus because of the changes in the alcohol policy have proven to be mistaken,” Poorman said. “Based on my observations and my own experience residing in one of the male dorms, I would say the halls are the same vibrant, spirited communities today that they’ve always been.”

Junior Fernando Contreras said he has enjoyed every minute in Alumni Hall, the residence hall where he has lived since his freshman year.

“I kind of wish I could see what the Wake used to be like before, because I’ve heard stories that you could bring three different girls as your dates to the dance, and about how everyone would get drunk together in the hallways that whole week,” Contreras said.

The Wake, one of the hall’s signature traditions, once featured a procession of Alumni residents and pallbearers that carried rector Father George Rozum into the dance inside a coffin, symbolizing the death of the hall’s set of laws during Wake Week, he said.

“Apparently, it was total anarchy for a whole week,” Contreras said. “I mean, the Wake is still fun because it’s the thing you do with your dorm, but I bet it would’ve been insane to be there when it was so wild.”

Despite the taming of the Wake in the aftermath of the revised alcohol policy, he said he “wouldn’t trade living in Alumni.”

Besides its effects on the long-standing traditions of the halls, student demonstrators in 2002 also said the policy changes would only force students to drink liquor off campus rather than in their rooms – and they predicted the number of accidents and deaths related to driving under the influence of alcohol would increase.

One person did die in the fall of 2002 – but Poorman refused to connect his death with the policy changes since the police could not answer all the questions surrounding the tragedy.

On December 12, 2002, freshman Chad Sharon disappeared one night after attending a party on Corby Boulevard. He was not seen for two months after that night, until his body was found in Saint Joseph River with a 0.224 blood-alcohol content – almost three times the Indiana limit for drivers.

“Many believe that after leaving the party alone on a wintry, icy night, he fell into the river and was drowned,” Poorman said. “The extent to which alcohol played a role in this accident is not known.”

He said while he did not know the exact circumstances of Sharon’s death, he did know “there are dozens of students on college campuses across the nation that die every year because of alcohol poisoning.”

“In a great many instances, these students consumed large quantities of hard alcohol in a very short period of time,” Poorman said. “Banning hard alcohol in the halls was a concrete, practical step we could take as a university to reduce the risk of this happening at ND.”

The changes to the alcohol policy, he said, were not passed to end alcohol consumption on campus but rather to reduce the risk of extreme intoxication by banning drinks that have twice the alcohol content of beer.

The third story in this series will examine the projected future of Notre Dame’s drinking culture in light of national trends and the actions the University is taking to address alcohol use and abuse on campus.