Draining Beer-Flooded Campuses – stopping college binge-drinking

Draining Beer-Flooded Campuses – stopping college binge-drinking – Column

Jay Mathews

Byline: Jay Mathews

Brandon Busteed still remembers vividly the low point in his quest to reduce college drinking. It was the night of Feb. 5, 1998. Curled up in a ball, he was weeping on the floor of his girlfriend’s Duke University dorm room.

He was sober, of course. This had nothing to do with a late-night bender. His tears were from embarrassment and frustration. His plan to provide a healthy and exciting alternative to the traditional drunken post-basketball bonfire celebration at Duke had fizzled in a spectacular way. He was convinced that his reputation as a student leader was shot and his effort to drain the 20-proof poisons from college life was a failure.

Yet nearly six years later, he is still devoting all his time to the problem and, surprisingly, is having some success, not just at Duke but at 300 other campuses. His story suggests to me that easing this ancient human affliction, at least among college students who have so many better things to do, may not be as hard as I thought.

I have been thinking a lot about campus drinking because my youngest child is now a freshman. I admit that I am out of the mainstream on this topic. I got drunk twice as a teenager, once in high school and once in college, mostly to see what it was like. It was not for me. The spacey feeling was not pleasant and I did not even like the taste of the stuff. So I do not consume alcohol at all, except maybe for one of those rumballs my wife makes at Christmas for her office.

I realize that most Americans who drink do so in moderation, but college drinking is an entirely different matter. According to the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, between 1993 and 2001 approximately 40 percent of college students were heavy drinkers — which for men means five or more drinks in a row on at least one occasion, and, for women, four or more drinks. The portion of college students who said they drank alcohol to get drunk climbed from 39.9 percent in 1993 to 48.2 percent in 2001.

As a college student, Busteed shared my distaste for alcohol and the way it made otherwise bright and responsible undergraduates seem stupid and careless. Unlike me, however, he was tall and handsome and athletic, and soon after arriving at Duke in 1995 became a well-known campus leader.

He remembers the unusual configuration of living quarters at Duke, with dry freshman dorms on the East Campus and heavy-partying upper-class dorms on the West Campus. The clarion call for freshmen each weekend was, naturally, “parties on the West!” “Buses ran constantly between the two campuses,” he recalls, “and on all weekend nights the freshmen would haul across to West and come back, sometimes vomiting and peeing on the buses, to East. I went along to be with my track buddies, to meet people, to see what it was all about — but did so reluctantly knowing that the vast majority of those going would be drinking. . . . I was there to have fun and fit in, and I did despite not drinking. Sometimes, though, it was just a little annoying; always the designated driver, having to keep friends in line, trying to sound interested while talking to an intoxicated female.”

He helped other students plan social events that did not depend on alcohol. When an injury ended his distance event running career, he became even more involved in student government. He saw that many other students shared his discomfort with the prevailing definition of a fun weekend.

“I’ll never forget the end of sophomore year when I ran unopposed for junior class president,” he says. “Since I didn’t really have to campaign, I spent my time instead going around to students’ dorm rooms asking them what they’d like to see us do for the year. I asked them all sorts of questions about what they were happy with and not happy with at Duke. It was fascinating. I heard from many more of them than I thought that they too felt something was missing. . . . And most of them told me stories about their favorite social experiences on campus — and hardly any of them were stories about big, crazy drinking nights. They were all about nights in their freshmen dorms when they stayed up studying, weekend retreats they went on with small groups of friends, dinners with students from diverse backgrounds, etc. From their feedback, I figured I was on to something.”

Some of the non-alcohol parties he planned were complete failures. But some worked. The high point for him was the 1997 Campus Semi-Formal, a $28,000 event with a huge tent, ice sculptures, disk jockey and much dancing. More than 1,500 students attended, the most telling sight for Busteed being the fraternity party couple who threw their beers in a trash can, went back to their dorms to change and joined his zero-tolerance soiree.

That was the first half of his junior year. It was the second half that messed him up.

Duke basketball had acquired, along with the heady joys of national championships, a dangerous and destructive tradition called bench burning. After a big win, students dragged the wooden benches outside their dorms into a big bonfire in the middle of Clocktower Quadrangle and got as drunk as possible to heighten the effect. There were serious burns from students falling or being pushed into the fire. There were broken bones from benches dropping on legs and arms. Police officers were hit in the head with bottles.

The administration decided to ban the bench burning that year. Busteed volunteered to organize a celebration that would fill the void. He found a company willing to fill a 10,000 square-foot section of the quad with two and half feet of foam, where happy students could flop and slide and frolic like three year olds in a bubble bath. I know, it sounds weird, but it had been a big hit on other campuses.

As the big game against North Carolina approached, Busteed began to worry that it might not work. Much of the reaction to the bench burning ban had been vehemently negative. Students complained that their rights, and even worse, their hallowed traditions, were being violated. An anonymous flyer encouraged students to burn the benches anyway. “Bonfires are not the problem,” it said. “Drunken students are not the problem. . . . THE POLICE are the problem. More injuries were caused by police brutality than the celebratory fires.”

So when the foam machines malfunctioned after the big Duke victory, leaving just a few foam dust balls rolling around the quad, Busteed knew he was going to be the scapegoat of the year. First he retreated in despair. Then he dragged himself off of his girlfriend’s rug and went back to clean up the mess as best he could. The door of his car had been kicked in and there were two death threats and one threat of bodily harm when he got home and checked his messages.

He thought it would take both him and his mission a long time to recover, but he was wrong. The very next year he saw, to his astonishment, signs of progress. The second annual boozeless Campus Semi-Formal was again successful. He and a group of his friends started a non-profit group to help other campuses with similar problems. The Duke Chronicle, the student paper that had not been kind about the foam disaster, supported him in his successful campaign for the Young Trustee position, a seat on the university board.

Busteed went to work for a technology market research firm after he graduated, but after a few months he realized that was not what he wanted to do. When he heard at a Duke trustees meeting that a student had died from inhaling his own vomit after a typical night on campus, Busteed quit his job and started his own company. It is called Outside The Classroom, and sells an online alcohol education program to colleges and universities. Many school administrators require students who have violated campus drinking rules to take the three hour course, called AlcoholEdu, but Busteed prefers the preventive approach that Duke and many other premier schools are taking — this year all freshmen at his alma mater are required to sit at their computers and go through the case studies, research findings and several interactive features soliciting their own thoughts and feelings.

More than 100,000 college students have taken the course so far. Busteed says he does not expect to change the habits of a millennium of university partying overnight. But the first results are good. Data from eight colleges that required their first-year students to take AlcoholEdu showed a decline of more than 13 percent in alcohol consumption along with a 10 percent increase in students abstaining from alcohol entirely. The data showed significant improvements in protective behaviors, such as no more than one drink per hour, and reductions in harmful behaviors such as “pre-partying” — drinking at home before going out to alcohol-soaked social gatherings.

Many more organizations, large and small, are trying to modify dangerous behavior on campuses. Perhaps someday they might even make a dent in drinking by younger teens. Alcohol is by far the leading drug problem in high schools. But that would require us parents to change our values and habits, and that is not going to happen any time soon.

Organizations like Outside The Classroom are not only helping change drinking habits but assessing why college students indulge to excess. Busteed says the assumption that young people drink to be with their friends is not quite right, because the worst drinking is AGAINST their friends. There is often a competitive element — who can consume the most and still remain ambulatory. And since the majority of American college students are now female, that admirable victory for women’s liberation has also sadly brought their binge drinking percentage right up with the guys’.

Busteed said surveys also show, as he learned in hundreds of dorm chats at Duke, that college students’ most memorable campus moments rarely have anything to do with adult beverages. The more young Americans understand the power of that insight, the better off they will be, and someday maybe youthful experiments in inebriation, like my own, will be mostly infrequent and not habit-forming.

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