BY PAUL BONNER : The Herald-Sun
May 12, 2006 : 10:40 pm ET
DURHAM -- Among the aspects of Duke student life the lacrosse rape case has drawn attention to is one with far-reaching implications for the campus and deep roots in students' experience.
Student life at Duke, as at most higher education institutions, is, if not steeped, at least irrigated liberally with alcohol. Campus committees commissioned by President Richard Brodhead in the wake of the lacrosse scandal to examine the lacrosse team's conduct before the March 13 allegations took aim at what it called inconsistent enforcement of Duke's policies concerning alcohol, as did another committee on the student judicial process.
For some, the language rings all too familiar. An earlier impetus for a crackdown was the 1999 death of Duke student Raheem Bath from pneumonia brought on from having inhaled his vomit during a drinking binge. Since then, where some see steady improvement, others see missed opportunities.
"To my disillusionment, the university failed to take full advantage of the opportunity to make the kinds of broad sweeping changes necessary to alter the drinking culture," wrote Duke researcher Aaron White in response to an interview request. "And so, here we are, talking about these same issues seven years later."
White, an assistant research professor of psychiatry at Duke, is among several faculty experts on alcohol and its effects on adolescents and young adults.
Catherine Bath, Raheem Bath's mother, wrote Brodhead last month to urge stricter enforcement. Brodhead wrote back to Bath this week, expressing his thanks and sympathy and intent to work diligently on the issue, noting that another of the study committees, dubbed the Campus Culture Initiative, presents a "major opportunity" to do so in a focused way.
"But, as you know, it is a difficult beast to control," Brodhead wrote. "To change the drinking culture requires thought, perseverance, and, unfortunately, time, since an absolute crackdown will inevitably drive irresponsible drinking to more dangerous settings."
One of the settings mentioned by the previous study committees is "Tailgate," parties preceding football games in parking lots near Duke's stadium. Underage drinking is afforded a "law-enforcement-free zone" there, with student affairs officials focusing more on overseeing students' safety, the lacrosse committee headed by professor James Coleman of the Duke Law School said, quoting campus police director Robert Dean.
Bath says that a ban on drinking games such as "beer pong," in which a makeshift ping-pong table
is set up with cups of beer that players guzzle when the ball falls in one, isn't sufficiently enforced either.
"They're really not doing anything to curtail it," she said, noting that the game -- albeit with a tongue-in-cheek assertion that students play it with water, not beer -- figured in a 2004 winning entry in an annual freshman film contest about student life.
An Alcohol Law Enforcement agent last January cited the Armadillo Grill in Duke's student union, the Bryan Center, as well as the restaurant's bartender and five students after observing the bartender serving drinks without checking IDs, the agent said in a report. The Alcoholic Beverage Commission had fined the grill $2,000 nearly three years earlier for allowing underage drinking.
Larry Moneta, Duke's vice president for student life, also said he empathizes with Bath's position and speaks with her regularly, even if he hasn't agreed to her suggestion to check student dorm rooms for pong tables.
"Schools that have attempted draconian solutions, you won't find they've had that much success," Moneta said.
The university has taken a firmer stand against drinking games at Krzyzewskiville, the winter bivouac by students outside Cameron Indoor Stadium in line for admission to home basketball games, he said.
And he acknowledged the Coleman Committee's characterization of Tailgate, but added: "I think we've reduced the number of the biggest mob events to a smaller number. Our goal is to further take the dangerous drinking out of the equation."
Underage drinking remains a more complicated issue, he said.
One of the committees noted that 107 citations by the ALE early this school year at a single off-campus party suggested that policy violations are probably underreported. Stephen Bryan, associate dean for judicial affairs agreed, adding that disciplinary actions by his office for alcohol violations don't tell the full story. They show a steady drop from 195 in 1999 to 58 last school year. But the Duke Police Department reported 36 arrests and 488 alcohol law violations in 2004. The university in 2002 put adult residence coordinators in dormitories around the clock, which has led to more misconduct reports but also better conduct, Bryan said.
"I think that shift brought about increased awareness," he said.
White suggested that Duke could take the lead in alcohol, since, as everyone interviewed agrees, it is a problem on most campuses. Duke could "convene meetings involving college presidents around the country, examine the issue from multiple levels of analyses, involve community representatives in the process, come to a consensus regarding the role of universities in monitoring and moderating underage drinking, and then deal with this once and for all," he wrote.
Most others harbor less decisive hopes, given drinking's long prevalence in the college culture.
Scott Swartzwelder, like White a Duke expert on alcohol, the brain and social forces, says he's even begun to see some reason in the arguments of former Middlebury College president John McCardell to reduce the drinking age, even though Swartzwelder says young people's brains remain particularly vulnerable to alcohol until they're about 25.
"It would only work if you coupled it with a really good public education program, that would lead our young people to treat alcohol more the way it is treated in southern Europe, that is, more like a food than a drug," he said. "But it's a very dicey issue."
Duke has for three years used an educational program called AlcoholEDU, which was developed by in part by White and Swartzwelder. Bath said most parents are unaware, as she was, when it comes to their children's binge drinking, and education for them could make a difference, as well. Other Duke awareness initiatives include BlueSPARC, which brings together students, faculty and community members. Results of surveys of students taking AlcoholEDU aren't readily available, Bryan said.
But if his informal polling of students in his course "Alcohol: Brain, Individual and Society" is any indication, the message can make a difference, Swartzwelder said.
"A huge percentage agree to statements like, 'The information has affected my attitudes about drinking. I have or will use this information in talking with other students about drinking less,' " Swartzwelder said.
"I essentially grab them by the brain, and say, look, your brain is what got you here, it's what's going to get you through here, and it's what's going to carry you through the rest of your life as an effective adult."