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Class Struggle: Time to Address Binge Drinking on Campus

Tuesday, December 09, 2014
Washington — I’m not surprised that University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan didn’t mention alcohol — not even once — in her Nov. 22 statement about the since-discredited report of a gang rape at a fraternity house and her desire to quell sexual abuse on campus. Education officials do their best to avoid the topic, despite the harm binge-drinking does to our students.

Rolling Stone magazine has disavowed its report of the U-Va. rape allegations, but that does not solve the problem. One study of 119 colleges found that 72 percent of campus rapes happened when the victims were so intoxicated they were unable to consent or refuse.

I hope Rolling Stone’s mistake does not deflate efforts to curb collegiate alcohol abuse, because it has become so awful. About 40 percent of college students binge-drink, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. That means they consumed five or more alcoholic drinks in a row in the previous two weeks. That wasn’t enough to persuade Sullivan to give it any attention in her Nov. 22 statement. A few days later, she finally raised the topic but had no solutions.

This goes beyond colleges. High schools have been my primary interest the past three decades. I have written about scores of them in every part of the country and hung around one in California, one in New York and one in Virginia for three books about high school life. I believe that after families, high schools are our most important institutions for building good character and work habits. Yet their students’ lives are awash in alcohol, and nobody does much about it.

In conferences about high school education, the drinking issue rarely surfaces. We experts prefer to discuss how to raise achievement, relieve test stress and teach workplace skills. What do we say when we learn, such as in a 2013 University of Michigan study, that 20.2 percent of a national sample of 16,000 high school seniors were binge-drinkers?

Like educators and parents, we don’t do much more than roll our eyes and wring our hands. Drinking is a social norm, so we write it off as insoluble, like divorce and traffic. Public service announcements focus on drugs, not booze, even though the Betty Ford Center says alcohol abuse and dependence is the most common chronic illness between the ages of 18 and 44.

U-Va. Student Council President Jalen Ross recently called for more study of the effect of alcohol on sexual crimes. He means well, but studies can be a way to avoid difficult decisions. So far the official approach has been: We can’t keep you from getting blind drunk, but we’ll try to make sure you behave yourself while you are in that condition.

The Washington Post exposed this wrongheadedness in a report on the U-Va. governing board’s statement calling for “zero tolerance” of sexual assault. One board member, Bobbie Kilberg, said the university should crack down on all underage drinking at fraternities. “A ban, I think, is what really would make a difference,” she said.

But Tommy Reid, president of the Inter-Fraternity Council, said the university should be wary of any move that would push drinking “more and more underground.”

What does that mean? Wouldn’t any change in location be an improvement? If heavy drinking retreated to dark alleys and abandoned warehouses, young people might get a more realistic impression of the dangers of such parties and be less likely to attend.

At this stage, with so little being done, any effort to restrict illegal student access to alcohol would be worth it. As a prestigious university that will never lack for smart applicants, U-Va. is in a good position to take a stand.

It will be difficult to do. The obvious solutions, like bans and random searches of university-owned residences, might not work. But University of Virginia has to resolve to get tough before anything happens that leads to an answer. From that, even high schools might try to alleviate the great student-health menace that so few educators want to talk about.

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