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.

Jason Koski/University Photography
Students enjoy the festivities at Slope Day 2006. The event was dramatically changed in 2003, when a concert became the focus of the event, alcohol was limited to that sold at the event, and the area was fenced with ID checkpoints.

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.

Cornell University
Alcohol sales were further restricted at Slope Day 2006 by fencing the beer line and allowing students to buy only one beer at a time. "There is evidence that we haven't solved the problem, but we've decreased the problem," said Tim Marchell, director of mental health initiatives for Gannett Health Services.

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:

  • Education: All incoming students are expected to complete a three-hour online course, AlchoholEdu. Since the program's efficacy and impact on drinking behavior has never been sufficiently studied, Lisa Staiano-Coico, dean of the College of Human Ecology, is spearheading a study at Cornell. Also, "Smart Women," an education campaign begun last spring, addresses high-risk drinking among Cornell undergraduate women.
  • Intervention: In 2005-06, 500 students completed BASICS -- a screening and early intervention program implemented in 2000. BASICS involves two sessions with a Gannett staff member; the second session provides feedback tailored to the student's responses to an online questionnaire. A follow-up survey is conducted a month later.

"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."

  • Medical amnesty: To reduce the likelihood of a student dying from alcohol poisoning, a medical amnesty protocol (MAP) was implemented in 2002 to encourage students to call for medical help in alcohol-related emergencies on campus, without fear of judicial repercussions for those involved. Those who choose medical amnesty undergo required education or counseling following emergency treatment (see

"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.

  • Event management: Vandalism and unregulated drinking were problems at Homecoming before a fenced-in alcohol service area was installed at the event in 1998, Marchell said. "The outcome was dramatic. In one year the problems plummeted," he said. At Slope Day, beginning in 2003, the perimeter of the slope was fenced in (with ID checkpoints), a major concert was held, shifting the event's focus to the entertainment, and the only alcohol allowed was that sold at the event. In 2006 the beer line also was fenced in as a crowd-management strategy, and alcohol sales were limited to one beer per purchase. Same-day surveys indicate that while drinking before the event has gone up, underage drinking on Slope Day appears to have gone down.

"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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