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Officials work to curb dangerous drinking

Marcela Berrios | Friday, April 27, 2007

Editor’s note: This is the third 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.

Though alcohol use and abuse are present on almost any college campus – or any place that houses hundreds of young people at the same time – University officials said they can, and will, continue to work to reduce the possibility of losing students’ lives to high-risk drinking.

These situations include freshman disorientations, athletic team initiations, PigTostals, case races, power hours and the classic drink-until-you-throw-up 21st birthday celebrations.

While students will undoubtedly continue to make their own choices with alcohol, University officials said these reckless activities can be contained.

Disoriented freshmen

Dis-orientation – the antithesis of the University’s traditional freshman orientation – pitches the first-year students to the upperclassmen to let them pour the rookie college students drinks all night or until they become intoxicated – and consequently, inducted to the college life.

This practice, however, is not really a service seniors are offering freshmen, but rather a pretext to host a bacchanalia, said Father Jim Lewis, OADE assessment counselor and rector of Carroll Hall.

“Disorientation never was about ‘welcoming’ first-year students,” Lewis said. “Do moderate or low-risk drinkers host disorientation? At the least, it is an event perpetuated by those who have significant social dependence on alcohol.”

Senior Bill Andrichik, the former student body vice president and chair of the Campus Life Council’s Conduct Awareness task force, also noted the trend and redflagged it.

“Things such as Dis-O create a dangerous situation for incoming students, many of whom are not accustomed to alcohol and don’t know their body’s limits,” Andrichik said. “The peer pressure in these situations is unique compared to typical drinking situations and has historically led to high-risk drinking.”

He said the committee spoke to hall rectors, resident assistants and students and determined “the University policy does address the issues, but that implementation of

the policy has not fully eliminated the high-risk components of these activities,” he said. “It appears the Office of Student Affairs at least shares some of these sentiments as our report was well received and will be consulted by the newly formed rector task force on


In previous Campus Life Council meetings, Andrichik had urged the Office of Student Affairs to create an ad-hoc committee to create an informational program for first-year students.

Pushing the BAC

The OADE says it hopes to reduce the number of hospitalizations due to alcohol poisoning by pushing the blood-alcohol content (BAC) campaign beyond what many students dismiss as a sanctimonious platitude.

“Yeah, I guess BAC cards are a good way to track how drunk you are,” junior A.J. Ong said. “But come on, I don’t want to whip out my BAC card in the middle of a drink or if I’m flirting with a cute guy. It’s not practical to expect students to be willing to do that.”

The BAC cards, however, may be the only way to monitor a person’s alcohol abuse – especially if the student drinks often and in large amounts.

Lewis said a high alcohol tolerance can mask the damaging effects of over-consumption of alcohol in a way that can allow some students to “hide in plain sight.”

OADE assessment counselor Annie Eaton said “one of the scariest” cases she has encountered is a male student who came to her office seeking counseling, on his own, after his 21st birthday because he had a six-hour blackout.

“He wasn’t ResLifed, nobody knew about it,” she said. “When he and I figured where his BAC was that night, he was at 0.6 and people die at a 0.2, you know. Alcoholism ran in his family too, so he inherently had a high tolerance and could take those large volumes of alcohol.”

The following year, Eaton said, the student was arrested for driving with a 0.38 BAC.

“They took him to jail instead of the hospital because he was still functioning at 0.38. That’s scary,” she said.

She said heavy drinkers think they’ll be safer, assuming their experience means they can maintain a lower BAC when, in fact, the BAC increases for rookie and mature drinkers at the same rate – but the latter may not show it.

“Two students who are the same size reach a high BAC by consuming the same amount of alcohol over the same period of time. One may be visibly intoxicated while the other one may seem to be ‘OK,'” Lewis said. “High tolerance, which some look at as a badge of honor, is actually a sign of progression.”

While these warnings may fall on deaf ears, Eaton and Lewis said the OADE will continue to try to raise awareness among students.

“Safety and education are the hallmarks of our efforts,” Lewis said, “though the disciplinary aspect is, naturally, the hot-button issue for some.”

The disciplinary side of the equation is what often paints the University as the students’ enemy rather than a concerned friend, Ong said.

“I understand the University has to act like a parent to keep its rules enforced and punish students if they break them,” she said. “But if that’s how things are going to be, the University cannot expect us to be all happy and super excited about its anti-alcohol fairs and its BAC pamphlets. It may be immature, but kids are that way. If you ResLife them and fine them for every bottle of rum they have, they won’t like you as much the next day.”

“There’s only so much you can do to help”

Ong said students will not turn to the OADE unless they are really convinced they are alcoholics and desperately need a psychologist, which prompts the question: How much can the University help its students if they’re not looking for help?

“If students are not receptive to the programs and the services the University offers them, then they won’t benefit from them. It’s as simple as that,” senior Alexa Recio said. “And there are some students that really should get professional help and they don’t do it because they don’t even recognize they have a drinking problem.”

Eaton said many students don’t think the two beers they may drink during Monday Night Football qualify as “drinking” in the same way that beers at a bar on a Friday night qualify as “drinking” – and they may develop alcoholic tendencies without knowing it.

The OADE, however, can’t help them unless they recognize the office’s recommendations are justified and they are willing to take actions to reduce their alcohol intake, Eaton said.

“Students need to understand in advance the ramifications of the decisions they make, to the extent that the University has rules and regulations we bring attention to, but ultimately, the decision to drink is theirs,” Associate Vice President for Residence Life Bill Kirk said.

On Nov. 10, 2006, senior Caitlin Brann, 22, was killed in a accident after her rear passenger-side tire blew out, causing her car to roll numerous times. Though police called the accident a “non-survivable type of crash,” they noted alcohol may have also played a role in the tragedy.

Brann’s BAC at the time of her death was 0.249, three times the 0.08 Indiana limit for drivers.

Vice President for Student Affairs Father Mark Poorman said “Caitlin’s death was tragic and we grieve the loss of her life.”

He said he recognized the University can’t monitor students all the time and protect them from every accident that may befall them – or keep them from getting behind the wheel after a night at the bar – but he said “sound policies can help us address alcohol use and abuse on the campus.”

“I also believe students are responsible for making good choices with regard to their own safety,” Poorman said.

The administrative intervention

Poorman said there will be no revisions to the alcohol policy in the near future, but he said part of his work for Student Affairs consists of continuously making improvements that may help save lives.

“We continuously evaluate policies and practices related to alcohol. We consult among the senior staff of Student Affairs, the various Student Affairs department directors and their staffs, along with rectors and residence hall staffs,” Poorman said. “We are unlikely to make any broad decisions without wide consultation.”

He said with these consultants’ cooperation, his office would continue to address the drinking issue by expanding programs and launching initiatives in four different areas: behavioral guidelines, therapeutic resources, education and social alternatives.

Lewis echoed Poorman’s words, saying there is room for improvement in the University’s programs for recovering alcoholics that may relapse during their treatment.

“In conjunction with current services, I would hope that some combination of professionals on campus could develop a relapse prevention program for students who are in recovery,” Lewis said. “Being on campus and in recovery is a tough combination.”

Poorman, however, continued to stress the need for the students’ cooperation to make strides in Notre Dame’s efforts to reduce alcohol abuse permanently.

“All of us – students, faculty, staff and administrators – must work together to create a healthier campus climate with regard to alcohol use,” he said.