Challenging the binge drinking culture by encouraging students to drink

University tells students it's not like in the movies

Administrators at Frostburg State University (FSU) are taking a new stance toward binge drinking, encouraging students to consume alcohol safely, instead of asking them to go completely dry.

Alcohol is tied to half of all sexual assaults, and excessive drinking is tied to mental health problems, suicide attempts, fights, injuries, and faltering grades. Every year, more than 1,800 students drink themselves to death. About 40% of college students binge drink at least once a month, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2012.

In a culture where excess is the norm, a serious drinking problem can easily go unnoticed.

"There’s this impression that there’s nothing you can do about it, and that’s just wrong," says FSU president Jonathan Gibralter, who has prioritized reducing high-risk drinking on campus. 

Changing the culture

All incoming FSU students must pass an online class emphasizing most people do not drink like characters in movies that glamorize college parties.

Additionally, FSU hosts monthly alcohol-free gatherings at the student center, complete with food, dancing, and iPads giveaways. FSU's business school offers a slew of Friday morning classes, discouraging students from going out on Thursday nights.

The school also runs a "Reality Check" social marketing campaign, sending regular emails and hanging posters around campus. One poster shows a woman crouched over a toilet, captioned "Glamorous, Isn't it?".

Preventative policing

In 2012, Frostburg campus police and the city police began an unusual partnership giving officers joint jurisdiction.

The university helps pay overtime for extra state, county, city, and campus police on weekend nights. Officers circle the blocks to focus on student safety, not arrests.

"We can't card everybody. But we want to make sure everybody does it the right way and safe way," says Derrick Pirolozzi, a FSU police officer.

Engaging the larger community

A Maryland state grant funds FSU's anti-binge drinking coalition of police, parents, businesses, and city officials, and Gibralter advocated for Maryland's recent ban of grain alcohol.

FSU pays the sheriff's office to run monthly, undercover compliance checks and to train bar staff how to spot fake IDs.

Making it harder to get alcohol goes a long way, says Kevin Kruger, president of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Partying 'in a police state'

Parents and alumni are among the most vocal opponents of the initiative, says Gibralter, they reminisce about their college drinking without knowing how many students die from alcohol poisoning each year.

Some students feel the changes are too heavy-handed, calling it "a police state."

Despite some complaints, the number of FSU students binge drinking at least once every two weeks dropped from 57% to 41% in six years. The average number of drinks consumed each week also fell, from eight to four.

Still, Gibralter says there is more work to be done.

"We’re only as good as our last weekend," he says. "I never go to bed at night thinking: 'Thank goodness. We finally solved this problem'" (Ludden [1], NPR, 9/16; Ludden [2], NPR, 9/16; Johnson, Washington Post, 8/30/2013).

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