The costs of student alcohol abuse became tragically clear to Jonathan Gibralter in September 2006, shortly after he became president of Frostburg State University (FSU) in western Maryland. A local resident was assaulted and nearly killed by a student who had been at an off-campus party where drinking occurred. Earlier that year, before Gibralter took office, an inebriated student drowned in his own vomit in his off-campus house.
The incidents led Gibralter to launch a comprehensive campaign against alcohol abuse. The efforts have garnered national recognition for the president and the school.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism appointed Gibralter to its College Presidents Working Group, created to help determine what research and informational materials would be most effective in combating alcohol abuse among students. A group of national educational organizations gave Gibralter its Presidential Leadership Award, which came with a $50,000 grant to support college projects to combat alcohol problems. The state has given the school special grants to fund anti-alcohol activities. And Frostburg State was invited to join 31 other colleges in a nationwide project to test the effectiveness of anti-alcohol-abuse strategies.
Despite it all, alcohol-related tragedy continues to haunt Frostburg State.
Students still attend alcohol-centered parties in off-campus housing, sometimes paying an admission fee for the opportunity to enter and drink. In November, a student stabbed another to death outside such a party, and police said alcohol likely played a role.
Brandon Busteed, founder of one of the organizations that presented the Presidential Leadership Award, said it's not surprising that Frostburg students still drink to excess. “Even on campuses that are doing some of the best work, the issue is still such a big problem that all of us are a heartbeat away from potential disaster,” he said.
Gibralter himself lamented that “we don't always have control over where [students] are and what they do.” The campaign against alcohol abuse is an endless task, he said. “Every year, we get a new group of students, and we have to start all over again.”
The incidents at Frostburg State — in 2006 and last year — highlight the fact that the challenge of student drinking extends beyond campus. The broader community contributes to the problem and must be part of the solution, Gibralter says. To bridge the town-gown gap, Gibralter created a community task force to guide the university's campaign against alcohol abuse. Members include students, faculty, administrators and local residents — among them a bar owner and a rental-property manager. Gibralter and other university representatives also meet regularly with local residents to discuss mutual concerns.
One such meeting, in late 2008, demonstrated the community's interest in the college and Gibralter's style of leadership. Gibralter had invited bar owners and beverage distributors to campus to discuss how they could help reduce student alcohol abuse. “I was told nobody would show up,” he recalls. But “it was standing room only.” Among the attendees: bar owners, bar managers, bartenders, beer distributors, the mayor, police chief and members of the Allegany County Liquor Board.
A local newspaper described Gibralter's requests of the group, including putting all bartenders through Training for Intervention Procedures (TIP), which teaches servers' legal responsibilities, how to recognize intoxication, how to refuse service to inebriated customers without instigating a confrontation and how to spot fake IDs.
Training all servers would be a significant expense, one bar owner noted, saying: “It would help if FSU would sponsor a training session or something to help offset the costs.”
“Consider it done,” Gibralter replied.
Now, a university employee is studying to become a TIP instructor, so Frostburg State can offer free training on a regular basis. To combat increasingly sophisticated fake IDs, the school will use a state grant to supply bars with ID scanners that read magnetic strips, bar codes and other information on cards to search for evidence of counterfeiting.
Prevention begins with incoming freshmen, who are required to take an online alcohol-education class; parents can take the class as well. The university also conducts a “social-norming” campaign, in which results of student surveys are used to demonstrate that drinking and bingeing are less common than many students assume. The message is splashed on posters, T-shirts, bracelets and in the campus newspaper, explains Associate Dean of Students Jeff Graham. Students also run an anti-drinking peer-education program.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Community Preventive Services Task Force, when students overestimate how much their peers drink, they're more likely to drink excessively themselves.
The university offers alcohol-free housing and activities, such as laser-tag tournaments that begin at about 10 p.m., when many students would be headed for drinking parties or bars. Administrators also encourage faculty to offer more Friday classes to discourage students from beginning weekend partying on Thursday afternoons.
It's also “critically important to combine prevention efforts with enforcement efforts,” Gibralter says. That includes “giving clear messages about high-risk behavior and the resulting consequences,” Graham adds.
University policy permits students over 21 to have alcoholic beverages in their rooms, but nowhere else in the residence halls. A first violation of alcohol rules brings a $75 fine and requires participation in a $25 alcohol-education program and notification of parents or guardians. Subsequent offenses carry heavier penalties, including possible suspension from school. Students also can face additional fines for violating state law.
Because most problem drinking occurs off campus, the university pays for extra Frostburg Police Department patrols and has obtained authority from the city for university police to enforce the law off campus.
Gibralter says alcohol use is down, based on student surveys, indicating that the university's efforts have helped to reduce drinking and bingeing. In 1997, 90 percent of Frostburg students said they drank in the previous 30 days. This year, 64 percent said they did. Bingeing during the previous two weeks dropped from 59 percent to 41 percent. The average number of drinks consumed per week by students who did drink dropped by more than half, from 9.5 to 3.9.
— Tom Price