Student death has area colleges re-evaluating binge drinking

Freshman Erica Buschick was excited to return to Miami University following a long winter break at her Chicago-area home and decided to socialize with friends over drinks.

Buschick and her roommate began drinking at about 10 p.m. on Jan. 19, consuming approximately two bottles of champagne between them, a Miami police report says. They then filled a water bottle about halfway with vodka and went to an off-campus apartment to drink more.

The next morning, Buschick’s roommate found her unresponsive in their door room.

The 18-year-old’s death and other recent alcohol-related incidents — including several dozen citations at the University of Dayton for underage drinking — has area universities re-evaluating their efforts to prevent binge drinking, which impacts more than half of Ohio’s college students, according to one estimate.

But as serious a problem as binge drinking is on some campuses, colleges may be powerless to do much about it.

Bad combination

Binge drinking rates on college campuses are more influenced by the price and availability of alcohol and statewide policies than the efforts of universities, said George Dowdall, who serves as a board member for the Clery Center for campus safety in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a toxic combination,” Dowdall said. “What we’ve learned in the last 10 years is that colleges and universities know they have a big problem.”

Around 51 percent of Ohio college students binge drink, according to studies by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Binge drinking is considered five drinks for a man inside two hours and four for a woman in the same period. One drink may be a 12-ounce beer with five percent alcohol, one glass of wine or one shot of hard liquor.

The high-risk drinking rate has largely remained the same for years, but the students who binge drink are consuming more as alcohol has become more prevalent and more widely available.

At UD, for example, there are nearly a dozen restaurants and stores to buy alcohol on Brown Street next to the school's main campus alone. In the last year, Ohio laws were relaxed to wipe out alcohol limits in beer and to allow retailers to offer free samples of beer and wine.

Consumption levels have increased, officials say, as alcohol has become easier to get.

Current college students are drinking more like 10 to 15 drinks now, said John Clapp, director of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery at Ohio State University.

Increased drinking

It’s the increased drinking that worries college officials, especially following the recent death of Buschick. A coroner’s report says her blood alcohol level was .347, more than three times the legal limit.

Such events stand out as "red flags" that something more needs to be done at a university, said Rebecca Baudry Young, director of student wellness at Miami.

“There’s been this elevation of this issue all of a sudden,” said Baudry Young said. “This was definitely a high profile incident and now there are a lot of people asking ‘how do I re-engage in this issue?’”

UD officials felt the impact of Buschick’s death too. It served as a “cold reminder” of the alcohol problems UD has faced, said Christine Schramm, associate vice president for student development and dean of students.

In early February, 23 UD students were arrested at area restaurants for underage drinking in a state liquor control sting. A few weeks later, UD officials announced they would boost the police presence in the student neighborhoods after a reported increase in instances of “high-risk drinking.”

It’s a trend officials at all area colleges said they’ve noticed as well.

“You used to have people going out and getting drinks as entertainment,” Clapp said. “Now I hear college students talk about going out with the motivation of blacking out.”

Part of lifestyle

Drinking all weekend is just part of the college, lifestyle, said UD students partying on a warm February Saturday.

Partying tends to begin around 1 p.m. in the UD student housing, students said. They drink until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., break for dinner, maybe a nap and then head back out to drink more at night.

“It’s work hard, play hard,” said Kristi Helm, a UD senior from St. Louis. “We probably binge drink but it’s all on the weekend.”

That’s the “kids will be kids” mindset that officials said they’re trying to dispel about college. It’s a mentality that administrators have been weeding out of their own ranks for decades as well, Schramm said.

“That kind of mentality doesn’t really fly here,” Schramm said. “It’s not dismissed but I think we hear that kind of stuff around everything.”

An education in alcohol

Most universities in the Dayton-region try to confront students about the dangers of binge drinking before classes even start. They do it through an online program commonly referred to as “Alcohol EDU.”

Miami University and the University of Dayton require students to take the online courses while Wright State University offers it but doesn’t require it. UD will even bar students from registering for classes second semester until they complete the program, officials said.

“I think it makes a statement…Before you even walk through our hallowed halls of higher education,” Schramm said. “It begins to shift a mindset.”

It’s difficult to gauge the impact of online programs, both officials said. Area college leaders worry about whether students are actually paying attention to such online programs though and experts said they are right to be concerned.

“Programs like that don’t have much of an impact,” Dowdall said. “It’s turned out that didn’t work.”

There is no “silver bullet” to defeat binge drinking and Schramm said officials often “fall into the trap” of trying to find one. “Not everything sticks,” Schramm admitted but for now colleges are trying several things to find what does.

To discourage students from drinking, schools are also offering “alcohol free” events on campus. The events have become more popular over the last few years, officials said, a signal they’re hoping will eventually translate into a decline in high-risk drinking.

All area universities offer assistance to students who feel like they’re already struggling with an alcohol dependence. Each can refer a student to a nearby Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and the University of Dayton even offers one right on campus.

Last month, UD formed a committee that will develop plans to better support students suffering from alcoholism.

“A student shouldn’t have to choose between recovery and an education which is why we’re working to put those things in place for our students,” said Vernique Coleman-Stokes, alcohol and drug intervention manager at UD.

Dry campuses

One area college has taken a different approach to student drinking by not allowing them to do it at all.

Cedarville University prohibits students from drinking on and off of campus. Cedarville students “are not allowed to use, purchase, share or possess alcoholic beverages,” according to the university’s alcohol policy.

The policy cites religion and the fact that more than 70 percent of Cedarville’s students are underage as the reason for a campus “prohibition.”

“The Bible contains many warnings on the use of alcohol and teaches the need for caution,” the policy states.

Cedarville officials declined to be interviewed for this story, said spokesman Mark Weinstein.

At first glance, Cedarville’s tactics appear to work. The university reported no alcohol-related student arrests from 2013 through 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. In 2015, the college reported no disciplinary actions taken because of alcohol, in 2014 there was just one violation and in 2014 there were two.

Cedarville is the only college in the region to report zero arrests and had the fewest disciplinary referrals for alcohol.

Central State University came closest with one disciplinary referral and two arrests in 2015, according to Clery reports, which detail crimes committed only on college campuses and not the immediate area surrounding them.

Ohio State University reported the most alcohol arrests and discipline referrals in the state with 1,636 altogether. The University of Dayton was second with 871 referrals and arrests combined.

But the numbers can be deceiving, Clapp said.

“There is a direct correlation between the drinking rate and places where it’s harder to get alcohol,” Clapp said. “These reports can be a little bit misleading.”

Most dry college campuses are religiously affiliated, like Cedarville University is, Clapp said. While they often tend to report few problems with alcohol, it has more to do with the interests of the students who go there than what the school is doing to prevent it.

“There’s a little bit of a selection bias there.” Clapp said. “The kid who does not want to drink, or the parent who does not want their kids to drink, sends their kids to those schools for that reason.”


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