In an Associated Press article about campus drinking deaths that ran in the Early Sunday edition on Nov. 14, it was reported, based on police accounts, that University of Arkansas student Bradley Kemp, 20, died after downing a dozen beers and possibly other drugs, according to his friends. (Published 12/12/04)
It is a sad but recurring campus story: This autumn, students are again drinking themselves to death.
Colorado State student Samantha Spady had consumed as many as 40 drinks when she was found dead at a fraternity house in September. Lynn Gordon Bailey Jr. -- "Gordie" to his friends -- had been taken to the mountains near the University of Colorado with fellow Chi Psi fraternity pledges and told not to leave until several bottles of whiskey were finished.
At a University of Oklahoma fraternity house, Blake Hammontree had a blood-alcohol content more than five times the legal limit. Bradley Barrett Kemp of the University of Arkansas had downed a dozen beers and, friends said, possibly other drugs.
Those deaths -- three of which have been officially ruled alcohol poisoning -- are only the most prominent. The majority of the estimated 1,400 alcohol-related deaths each year among college students come in automobile accidents and go largely unnoticed.
The episodes leave college leaders with a persistent question: Is there anything they can do?
"I don't feel hopeless. I do feel frustrated at times, because the problem does continue," said Thomas Burish, president at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., which lost two students in an alcohol-related automobile accident in 2000. "No college president I know of says what he or she is doing is solving the problem."
Dangerous drinking has been a feature of campus life since medieval Europe. Experts say it is simply inevitable that alcohol will be one way college students choose to push the boundaries of their newfound independence. And it is inevitable that some, with nobody to make them stop, will go too far.
But college presidents interviewed recently insist they are not helpless. Tragedies are inevitable, but they believe the policies and tone they set save some lives.
"What a college president can do is affect the atmosphere and climate," said Thomas K. Hearn Jr., who has been actively involved in alcohol issues during his long tenure as president of Wake Forest University. "We think of it as a cultural, not a local, problem. We're not going to solve it by anything we do, but we will have some measurable effect, depending on how far we go."
But will any anti-drinking programs work consistently? The evidence is mixed at best.
Proponents of a popular strategy called "social norms marketing," which tries to convince students that binge drinking is not as common as they believe, recently presented preliminary research from 130 college campuses asserting that the strategy is showing results. But Harvard University's Henry Wechsler has published a study that critiques social norms, claiming it does little good.
Wechsler found modest success for schools that aggressively pursued comprehensive partnerships with nearby communities to limit alcohol access, punish lawbreakers and reduce the influence of alcohol on campus culture. Schools he studied took different approaches, but they included parental notification of offenses, requiring that kegs be registered and requiring servers to charge for each drink.
Many experts say education alone will not work.
"It's not about telling kids to be more careful and giving them a brochure and CD-ROM," said Alexander C. Wagenaar, a University of Florida professor of epidemiology and health policy research. "Changing the environment that fosters it, that's the key."
But the comprehensive strategies that discourage excessive boozing demand more time and energy from college leaders. They also often force administrators to confront a culture of tolerance toward excessive drinking that is often propped up by visiting alumni and cozy relationships between the alcohol industry and college athletics.
Wechsler believes that many college presidents recognize the complex problem they are facing, but "I don't know how committed they are to a long-term, difficult approach" to solving it.
Another challenge is that many of the most serious incidents take place beyond the universities' area of immediate oversight.
Many students "live off campus and in apartments," University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat said. "That becomes really problematic for us. There's not much we can do about it."
Khayat said midweek drinking by students at Mississippi is down in recent years, but on "Thursday, Friday, Saturday, there's as much drinking going on as I've ever seen."
Unable and unwilling to constantly monitor students, several college leaders said they are increasingly convinced the best bet is to have students make and enforce their own rules. Colgate has students in some residences write their behavior contracts, President Rebecca S. Chopp said. The idea is to make students answerable to the people with whom they live.
Washington and Lee is moving to a similar philosophy, Burish said, and is trying to bring its fraternities and sororities on board.
"That empowers them, instead of having to live under a 10-page list of rules that the dean hands down," Chopp said.
It is also a strategy aimed at pushing hard without pushing students away -- a delicate balance for schools and, for that matter, parents.
"Nothing's easy to change at institutions, but adolescent behavior is more resistant to change than much adult behavior," said Marlene Ross, director of the American Council on Education Fellows program, which helps train college presidents. "It's something adults are presenting, so it's automatically irrelevant."
Amanda Havekost, a Colorado State sophomore who considered Samantha Spady a close friend, said that because many students will inevitably drink, rules and policies have their limits. Since her friend's death, she has worked on a number of projects geared toward educating students about their limits -- something with which novice drinkers may have trouble.
"Obviously, the drinking age is 21, and the people that have passed away have been under 21," Havekost said. "The policy and the rules haven't worked. [We need to] give them the education of knowing their limits and what their body can handle."
Patty Spady is involved with a foundation set up in her daughter's memory to educate others about alcohol poisoning. She said she believes the culture can change with hard work from educators and a willingness by students to act more responsibly. She is inspired by the example of designated drivers, which are far more common than they were a generation ago.
"I think this culture that has developed on campuses, it may take as long to change that," she said. "I hope not. We just feel somebody needs to do something."
Meanwhile, the problem continues, with three more alcohol-related deaths recently in Colorado alone. On Oct. 21, Amanda Morrison fell to her death from a Colorado College dormitory window; she had a 0.22 blood-alcohol level. Preliminary tests showed Jason Bannick, 19, of Fort Lewis College had been drinking when he was killed Oct. 24 by an SUV as he walked down a highway.
Three days later, Colorado Mountain College student Joseph Michael Osborne, 24, was found at an off-campus house, killed by heart and lung failure as a result of alcohol poisoning.