- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2008


It’s dime draft night every Thursday at the Diamond Lounge on Main Street, and a dozen or so glassy-eyed students are milling around outside as Lt. Kevin Grove’s patrol car passes by. He hangs a right on Bowery Street, the main drag for off-campus social life at Frostburg State University. A few students are walking — some stumbling — up the hill. But Lt. Grove keeps driving. He’s looking for fights, accidents and vandalism.

A night earlier, an FSU student was hospitalized, and earlier this semester another nearly died from drinking Everclear, a grain alcohol illegal in a dozen states. She was saved by a quick-thinking fellow student, a resident assistant who recognized trouble signs after friends dropped the woman off at the dorm.

But tonight, at least, Lt. Grove won’t be calling Frostburg State President Jonathan Gibralter to inform him of a student fatality.

This may be what winning looks like in the battle against destructive binge-drinking on college campuses.

“I don’t feel I have the answers,” said Mr. Gibralter, whose anti-binge-drinking efforts have attracted attention beyond Frostburg’s 5,200-student campus in far-western Maryland. “All I can say is, we’re trying the best we can. We may be only one party away from a disaster.”

Last summer, presidents of more than 100 colleges, including prominent schools such as Duke and Ohio State, prompted a national debate by calling on lawmakers to rethink the national drinking age of 21. The group, called the Amethyst Initiative, argued current laws only encourage binge-drinking by driving it into the shadows.

Beneath that debate was another contentious one about whether colleges and their presidents are doing enough to combat alcohol problems. Some who signed on to the Amethyst Initiative insist they’ve hit a wall. But critics said the presidents only want to spare themselves the inconvenience and unpopularity that comes with a serious crackdown.

Mr. Gibralter, who came to Frostburg in 2006, is pushing a “zero tolerance” policy. He thinks a president’s attitude makes a big difference, and that other presidents should do more. In early September, he was honored at an American Council on Education meeting for his leadership on the issue.

But the lessons from Frostburg don’t fit neatly into categories of “cracking down” versus “giving in.” Mr. Gibralter has made compromises, like supporting a “safe-ride” program he initially opposed for fear it would encourage drinking, and he hasn’t gone so far as to ban alcohol from campus.

The focus is saving lives, not eliminating underage drinking, and the trick is to engage students without alienating them, while planting seeds of caution in their minds he hopes will make a difference when it counts.

Nationally, more than 40 percent of college students report at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependence. One study has estimated more than 500,000 full-time students at four-year colleges suffer injuries each year related in some way to drinking, and about 1,700 die.

At FSU, survey figures from 2006 and 2007 show the proportion of students engaged in high-risk drinking — less than half — is about on par with that of comparable institutions.

But a number of factors, including geography, have given Frostburg its heavy-drinking reputation.

Students say the town of 8,000 year-round residents offers few other social options, and several bars sell cheap alcohol near campus. Most students live off-campus. And there have been big problems with unrecognized fraternities that are outside the reach of the Greek system.

It was just a month after Mr. Gibralter arrived that a student member of one such fraternity punched out a 45-year-old town resident after a party. The victim suffered life-threatening injuries.

Two years later, what’s emerged is a wide-ranging approach that includes policies like extending facility hours and so-called “social norms” marketing that tries to convince students that not as many of their friends are binge-drinkers as they think.

But the big change, administrators and students say, is twofold: a consistent message to students about the standards, and an effort to knock down the walls between on-campus and off-campus life.

Now, students who get city citations go through the campus discipline system, too.

A Frostburg police citation likely means a fine, probation or community service. On campus, first-time offenders likely get a fine, an educational program and, now, a letter to parents. A second offense is probation, and a third offense is suspension or expulsion.

Many schools have alcohol task forces, Mr. Gibralter said, but few include neighborhood landlords and business groups. Both sides say there was little contact between the previous administration and police. Now they meet monthly and exchange information and tips about off-campus parties. Some students worry the administration is snooping, but administrators say it’s prevented dangerous gatherings.

Most calls fielded by the city’s 15-member police department are student-related, and virtually all crime here comes back to alcohol.

Off-campus citations for FSU students dipped from 245 to 133 last year, though a big raid in 2006-07 makes the numbers hard to compare. Total city alcohol citations are running at about the same clip this year as last.

Public Safety Commissioner Bob Flanigan said he sees fewer repeat offenders. “That’s because the university is taking the stand that they’re taking,” he said.

If Frostburg can change its culture, it may help convince similar schools there’s a way to be tough on binge-drinking that makes them more appealing. Nobody wants a party school diploma.

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