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The Bud Stops Here

Lt. Norman Barnes, a GMU policeman who's tackling the issue of underage drinking, visits with freshmen Eliza Quanbeck and Marco Quiroga.
Lt. Norman Barnes, a GMU policeman who's tackling the issue of underage drinking, visits with freshmen Eliza Quanbeck and Marco Quiroga. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

Students' welfare is not all that's at stake. So is institutional liability and reputation. From the 1960s until the mid-'90s, courts generally rejected the idea that colleges were supposed to protect students from harm. In 1997, that trend started to reverse after Scott Krueger, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, died of alcohol poisoning in the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house. Krueger's parents sued MIT, which eventually paid out $6 million: $4.75 million to the family and $1.25 million to a fund in Scott's honor. According to Brett Sokolow, a risk management consultant, universities have been scrambling ever since to reduce the odds of being sued. Demonstrating that you're doing all that you can to stem drinking may reduce the size of a potential judgment.

At a national conference Barnes recently attended, "liability was all we talked about," he says.

Mason officials also don't want to see an alcohol-related tragedy mar the school's reputation, says Barnes. That's become a bigger concern since the basketball team's trip to the Final Four of the last NCAA tournament.

"College presidents don't like negative publicity," he says.

Most days, Barnes likes his work, but sometimes it gets to him. Last winter, an officer called him in the middle of the night and said that he was wanted at Fairfax Hospital. A freshman at George Mason was so intoxicated that she had been put on a ventilator, and the attending physician had asked that someone from the university notify her family.

"That someone would be me," Barnes says, cruising up the ramp of a parking garage on the night of Yun's arrest looking for drinkers or stashes of booze. His normally booming voice has gone soft. "She had been drinking with her sorority sisters before the basketball game. At a phenomenal rate. When she got to the game she was highly intoxicated. Her sorority sisters tried to get her back to her room, but she slipped outside and hit her head.

"Her blood-alcohol level was so high, the doctor was more concerned about that than the head trauma. She came out of it okay, but it was touchy for a while. Could have been a situation where she didn't survive."

The Dilemma of Consistency

As Alex Yun discovered, the Virginia General Assembly handed Barnes and his fellow officers a new weapon last year in their fight against underage drinking.

"Once that law passed, I knew exactly what the legislature wanted us to do," says Barnes. "The courts are enforcing the law boom, boom, boom."

It's noon on a weekday, and Barnes is sitting in his small office filled with metal cabinets of old arrest forms and cardboard boxes of tickets yet to be used. A large calendar sketched on dry board shows the arrests each day by each of his four squads. He's proud of the squad he's been after: On Saturday, Sept. 16, its officers made 17 arrests. "That squad hadn't made 17 arrests in five years," he says.

Down the hall is the office of Police Chief Michael Lynch, Barnes's boss, who checks the dry board from time to time. Lynch, a friendly, barrel-chested fellow, wasn't thrilled about the way Yun's arrest was handled. "That one incident doesn't describe the philosophy of the department," he says with a slight harrumph, declining to elaborate. A couple of minutes later, however, he says: "Are we too heavy-handed? I can't say that we are. That 19-year-old, maybe he just had a couple of beers, but maybe he had been setting up keg stands and beer bongs."

Lynch says he's satisfied with Barnes's initiative. "We only had one alcohol-related transport to the hospital in the first two weeks of school. There have been some weekends in the past when we've hauled off four or five kids. I don't mind the number of parties we're breaking up, the number of kids referred to court.


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