The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Z_CNHI News Service

September 6, 2013

Schools try new strategies to battle college drinking

(Continued)

Within 30 minutes of new-student orientation kicking off at Frostburg State University on a Sunday morning in June, the school's top leader had the microphone and was talking about alcohol. He warned the group sitting before him - mostly 18-year-olds with their parents - not to get caught up in the "college effect," the idea presented in movies and on sitcoms that going to college means drinking.

"Beyond the tragedies, what concerns me most is the loss of human potential," said President Jonathan Gibralter, who has led the public university in Western Maryland since 2006. He paused before continuing: "Please think about that this summer. Don't let yourselves get caught up in that world of excessive, high-risk drinking and change the story of what is possible for you at Frostburg State University."

Frostburg used to be a major party school, a reputation coupled with tragedy. A freshman died of alcohol poisoning in 1996 after drinking at an unaffiliated fraternity's party. Seven students were charged. Early in Gibralter's presidency, a student punched a neighbor outside a frat party, nearly killing the man. And over the years, several students have been hospitalized after drinking too much.

Gibralter is convinced that administrators can change the drinking culture - and that they must. "There's this impression that there's nothing you can do about it, and that's just wrong," he said.

Gibralter wants to change the "college effect." In high school, college-bound students are less likely to drink than students who don't plan to continue their education. But during freshman year, students who already drink start to drink more, and students who never drank are likely to start. The drinking rates of those people in college are much higher than those not enrolled.

Gibralter's wife is an alcohol educator, and he has been closely involved with national initiatives, including one recently launched by Dartmouth College that treats college drinking as a public health epidemic.

Gibralter has made reducing high-risk drinking a priority at Frostburg. He's confident the university is making strides, as the percentage of students who binge-drink fell from 54 percent in 2006 to 41 percent last year. With that comes academic achievements: a slowly increasing retention rate, incoming students with higher academic credentials and fewer discipline problems.

Frostburg has worked to create an environment where there are many more things to do than drink. The business school now offers a full slate of Friday classes to discourage Thursday-night drinking. And the university often hosts alcohol-free dance parties that attract hundreds.

The university gave money to the local police force for an extra officer to patrol student neighborhoods on popular party nights. Once a month, Frostburg officials meet with police and representatives from bars and liquor stores. The school will pay for employee training and have students design the bars' menus in exchange for closely following the law, limiting drink specials and promoting healthy drinking habits.

All incoming students are required to pass an online class that teaches that most college students don't drink like characters in the movies. Officials urge parents to talk with their children about drinking before move-in day. That education continues into the fall and is often led by students. Student leaders, including those of fraternities and sororities, are required to receive the same training bartenders receive so they can spot problems at parties.

Frostburg maintains zero tolerance for underage drinking. A first offense results in more alcohol education and a letter to parents, which school officials say has lessened the number of further, more serious offenses.

During orientation, dean of students Jesse Ketterman sternly warned: "We deal with behavior on and off campus. It doesn't matter if you do it on campus or off; we will find out about it."

But, sure enough, during every orientation, at least a few incoming freshmen ask older students to buy them beer or recommend parties.

"The people who ask about alcohol at [orientation] aren't going to be here in a year," said Andy Krehbiel, a rising senior and fraternity member who works in the student center.

The cultural changes have not been easy or popular, Gibralter said. Even so, there are still tragedies, including one student fatally stabbed by another at an off-campus party in 2011.

"We're only as good as our last weekend," Gibralter said. "I never go to bed at night thinking: 'Thank goodness. We finally solved this problem.' "

The video starts with the sound of a marching band and quickly cuts to two supposed University of Michigan undergrads standing on a balcony in Ann Arbor in sunglasses.

"Hey, guys, I'm Liza," says the young woman wearing jeans shorts and a Michigan T-shirt, cropped to show her toned abs. A guy in a black tank top and backward cap next to her introduces himself as Justin.

"Welcome to Welcome Week 2012," she says.

"We're going to show you how we work hard," Justin explains.

 "And play harder," Liza says.

As Wiz Khalifa's song "Work Hard, Play Hard" pulses, the screen fills with photos that look as if they belong in an admissions brochure: the Michigan stadium, the bell tower, ivy-covered buildings and a banner exclaiming, "Welcome to Michigan!!"

The refrain hits - Work! Work! Work! Work! - and the screen turns into a montage of party scenes. A massive house party. A guy wearing a glow necklace brandishing two bottles of hard liquor. Students toasting a shot to the best week of their lives. Women shaking it. Every few seconds, someone shouts an expletive.

As the lyrics become even more unpublishable, the footage gets wilder. Students dancing in a shower of hose water. Guys standing on a balcony and pouring a stream of alcohol into the open mouth of a guy below. Marijuana. Stacks of cash. Kissing. Fighting. Dancing. Chugging. Shotgunning. Funneling. And more dancing.

This is an "I'm Shmacked" video, the creation of two 20-somethings who launched a production company in college. Shmacked, according to Urban Dictionary, means "to become intoxicated to the point of not even being able to stand up, know what's going on, or correctly pronounce any word."

The team travels from school to school, often at the request of students, and records the most outrageous scenes it can find (with this disclaimer: "No alcohol or illegal substance is used during the filming, just prop"). The videos get millions of page views and help to define today's college drinking culture.

It's not the image that most universities want these days, especially as they pump thousands of dollars into alcohol education and branding efforts focused on academics, not keg stands.

"It is important to emphasize that it paints a picture of only a small portion of our student population," said Kelly Cunningham, a University of Michigan spokeswoman. "We have many students at UM who choose not to drink, or when they choose to drink, drink moderately."

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