Nov. 16, 2006

Health initiatives, enforcement seek to minimize dangers of student alcohol and drug use

Missed classes. Memory loss. Injuries. Hangovers. Risk of sexual assault. Trouble with authorities. Even death.

Those are some of the negative consequences students can face from alcohol and drug use, abuse (including high-risk/binge drinking) and dependency. Cornell takes a public health and safety approach to alcohol and drugs on campus, with education, enforcement, health services and initiatives, and environmental management strategies to regulate alcohol service and offer alcohol-free recreation.

"Education is necessary, but not sufficient -- if you don't have policies that shape the environment, you won't be effective," said Tim Marchell, director of mental health initiatives for Gannett Health Services on campus.

In the Core Alcohol and Drug Survey taken by a random sample of undergraduates, 83 percent of Cornell students reported some alcohol use in 2005, 85 percent in 2003 and 82 percent in 2000. (The national average in 2004 was 85 percent.) In the 2005 survey at Cornell, 32 percent reported alcohol- or drug-related memory loss, and 25 percent reported missing a class.

Since 2001, the President's Council on Alcohol and Other Drugs has worked on reducing high-risk drinking and drug use at Cornell, alcohol- or drug-related harm, underage consumption of alcohol and negative secondhand effects on others. (Issues involving student drinking and other behavior off campus are addressed by the Campus Community Coalition, a partnership between Cornell, Ithaca College, Tompkins-Cortland Community College and community members.)

For incidents involving alcohol on campus, referrals are made -- usually by university police or residence hall directors -- for judicial action and subsequent education or counseling.

"By far I think it's one of the largest issues on campus, within any of the residential halls," said Natasha Pendleton '08, a resident adviser in the Class of '17 Hall on West Campus.

The Core survey also shows higher levels of alcohol and drug use and related harm among members of fraternities, sororities and varsity athletic teams, and lower levels among minority students compared with white students.

In the 2005 survey, 98 percent of fraternity members and 95 percent of sorority members polled said they used alcohol within the past year, compared with 79 and 81 percent for nonmembers. Underage students can also find easier access to alcohol at fraternity parties, Marchell said. "All the problems within the fraternity/sorority system are being looked at with increasing scrutiny," he said.

Members of the President's Council are developing a referral system for athletic coaches to use, but fraternities and sororities are self-governed and "much of what happens [regarding alcohol policy] is student initiatives," said Travis Apgar, the new associate dean for fraternity and sorority affairs. For example, the Inter-Fraternity Council created a resolution last spring on limiting the amount of alcohol in a fraternity house during recruitment.

"Our first and foremost concern is safety issues," Apgar said. "We need to have a more active role in the solutions. I think we're getting there."

Other measures Cornell is taking to address student alcohol and drug use:

"The vast majority of students who go through the program are in some ways required to do it, although many students do choose to do it voluntarily," said Deb Lewis, alcohol projects coordinator at Gannett. "It's increased every year since we started the program. The more we train other people on campus about how to refer students, the more we get in BASICS."

Gannett also provides integrated care based on individual assessments, including recovery and relapse prevention support and referrals to outside agencies.

"I would love to see more services for students who are in recovery and who have decided not to drink," Lewis said. "[It] would actually strengthen our prevention services."

"When we instituted medical amnesty, we started seeing the number of calls to EMS increasing, for medical emergencies for alcohol poisoning. That is what we wanted to see," Marchell said. He and Lewis have co-authored a research study of Cornell's MAP, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

"Before, roughly three-quarters of freshmen said they had at least one drink on Slope Day; after the changes the number was cut to about half of freshmen and has stayed there," Marchell said. "There is evidence that we haven't solved the problem, but we've decreased the problem."

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