A Look Through the Lens of Ira Latour

Under the Influence

Slamming the Word

Protecting a Piece of the Planet

 

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Probably nothing is better known—or more regretted—about California State Univer-sity, Chico than its number one party-school ranking by Playboy magazine in 1987. The school's infamous Pioneer Week had spiraled out of control, becoming for many students and out-of-towners nothing more than an excuse for a big, drunken party. President Robin Wilson cancelled the 60-year-old tradition after the riots that year, and he banned on-campus student drinking. Still, Pioneer Week's "replacement," the 1989 and 1990 Rancho Chico Days, also ended due to riots largely fueled by alcohol.

In Chico, drinking remains a popular form of "entertainment" among its students. Downtown bars do a brisk business from student customers. Special events like Halloween bring out the town's entire police force and an army of volunteers to combat the effects of partying, and from Thursday night through Sunday, crowds of students hold court with plastic cups of beer in the old Victorians and apartments near campus.

While a spring 2000 campus survey shows that most CSU, Chico students drink in moderation most of the time, there is a dangerous trend of binge drinking (defined as five or more drinks per sitting; some organizations prefer the term "high-risk drinking" because they believe "binge" is often viewed as much heavier drinking than the five-drink standard). Last fall, the death of 18-year-old Adrian D. Heideman gave a voice to this issue like no other. Not known as a problem drinker, the promising freshman had decided after a few weeks at college to go Greek. "It's so fun," the Pi Kappa Phi pledge wrote in his online diary. "I was afraid about going Greek at first because I didn't want to be a part of anything that was just about drinking and partying and sports and stuff I don't like, but the fraternity I'm pledging to is a lot nicer than that."

On October 7, Heideman consumed a bottle of brandy during a party with his new fraternity brothers, was put to bed in a downstairs bedroom of the fraternity house, and at 1 a.m. was found dead from an alcohol overdose. CSU, Chico has permanently withdrawn recognition from the Chico chapter of Pi Kappa Phi. Three Pi Kappa Phi members were charged January 18 with misdemeanor counts in connection with Heideman's death. The charges could carry up to one year in jail and $1,000 in fines; Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said a change in the law prevented him from filing felony manslaughter charges in the case.

Tragic trend
Heideman was the fourth CSU, Chico student in five years to die from alcohol-related causes. In 1997, 21-year-old Justin M. Sommers died at a party from alcohol poisoning and the "designer drug" GHB, and in 1996 and 1998, respectively, Chance Woodroof and Nicholas Losik died from alcohol poisoning after celebrating their 21st birthdays by trying to down the "traditional" 21 shots of alcohol. Statistically speaking, that's about 0.006 percent of the student population over five years. But statistics don't show the tragedy of a young life cut short, the grief of family and friends. Statistics can't convey the consequences of alcohol abuse suffered by students: academic failure, injury, sexual assault, arrest, a lifelong battle with alcoholism. And sometimes even death.

"I think the major myth is that people think they can't die just from drinking—just put them to bed, let them sleep it off, they'll be fine in the morning," says Shauna Quinn, program manager for CSU, Chico's Campus Alcohol and Drug Education Center (CADEC). "Many of the students who have died have been put to bed by their friends and left alone."

Underage alcohol use is a major contributor to morbidity and mortality in adolescents and young adults, according to the 1999 Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study. Last Halloween when 15,000 revelers descended on Chico's downtown, 48 of the 90 arrested were under 21.

After the Pioneer Week riots in 1987, the city council established a citizens task force consisting of about a dozen members from the community, the university administration, the student body, and the police department. Now called the Special Events Coordinating Committee, it concentrates on keeping Halloween festivities under control.

The Greek system continues to receive a lion's share of the blame when it comes to underage and binge drinking among college students. Sociology professor Walt Schafer, on special assignment from the president on alcohol issues, says that the Greek organizations are behaving more responsibly now than was true a decade ago. "They don't have the huge, open fraternity parties that were once the case, and I think that's a result of positive influences from the student activities people on campus, good relationships with the Greeks, and improved relationships between the Chico Police Department and fraternities," he remarks.

An encouraging development in Chico's Greek system is the implementation of stricter alcohol policies by the Interfraternity Council (IFC) and the Panhellenic Council last fall. The fraternities' Risk Management Policy includes rules regarding alcohol and drug use, hazing, and sexual abuse and harassment. Jonathan Smith, 2000 president of the IFC, says the policy is there to eliminate underage drinking, common sources of alcohol (like kegs), and binge drinking at fraternity social functions.

"Part of adopting these policies is showing the rest of the community and also showing ourselves that we're not just about drinking and most of the negative things that people perceive about fraternities," says Smith. "That's maybe 5 percent of what we're actually about. We're about making better men and brotherhood and being an extended family."

Students educating students
Among the university's arsenal in the fight against substance abuse is CADEC, established in 1989. Through a grant from the Department of Education, CADEC set up a program with a peer education model—students educating students about social problems. Program Manager Shauna Quinn, a former social worker with Butte County, has seen a change in students' drinking patterns.

"Ten years ago, if you asked students why they went out to drink, they would say, 'to socialize, to relax, to be able to dance more freely, to have a good time,' " says Quinn. "Now if you ask, the majority of students say, 'to get drunk.' "

This "Animal House" mentality is true nationwide. The Harvard School of Public Health study of 14,000 students at 119 colleges shows that 44 percent of college students were binge drinkers in 1999. Students who participate in binge drinking often suffer much more than a pounding hangover—they have more academic failures, experience a higher rate of personal injury, and are involved in more regretted sex and sexual assault.

CADEC holds workshops, offers individual alcohol assessments, and disseminates educational materials. The center also holds the annual Fun Without Alcohol Fair, and fraternities and sororities, residence halls, and faculty request CADEC staff to talk about alcohol issues.

What seems to make the program especially accessible to students are the peer educators, some of whom have had their own problems with alcohol—experiences that they readily share with the students. "We don't preach; we aren't asking people not to drink, not to party," says peer educator Sadie Wight. "What we do ask is that people be knowledgeable about situations they're putting themselves in or about the things they put in their body, and make responsible and informed decisions."

Wight is the president of Safe Rides, a free taxi service for students too drunk to drive home on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. At CADEC's bimonthly substance abuse seminars for students who get in trouble with alcohol or drugs in the residence halls, two of the peer educators work as a veritable drug and alcohol tag team. They repeatedly urge students to be smart when they drink. "We see all kinds of people who really don't want to be there in the beginning but, by the end, have learned something," says Wight. "You can tell when they walk out the door, they're walking away with a greater sense of knowledge."

No small problem
Heightened public interest in binge drinking has prompted changes in the way colleges—and college presidents—address this problem. In October, CSU, Chico President Manuel A. Esteban announced six university actions in response to Heideman's death, including determining the extent, location, and demographics of high-risk drinking behavior and reviewing the role of faculty/staff advisers to student organizations. His Web pages, at www.csuchico.edu/prs, include updates on CSU, Chico's alcohol programs and services, as well as the university's alcohol policy. He also joined a committee of CSU presidents to review the 23-campus system's alcohol policies and has become increasingly vocal about the dangers of binge drinking. At the 11th Annual Forum for National College Awareness Week just 10 days after Heideman's death, Esteban spoke to a crowd of students about their role in stopping this epidemic.

"I deeply believe that bingeing is a scourge," he said. "It has to be brought under control, and no one can do it unless you, the students, want to bring it under control. I could write executive memorandums, I could send e-mail messages, I could do all kinds of things. We could have the most perfect system as a university, but ultimately, we cannot control what you do as individuals when you're away from the university."

The task for the university, the students, and the community is daunting. Alcohol is much cheaper and easier to obtain than other commonly used drugs like marijuana. Even underage students seem to have no problem acquiring it, a fact corroborated in casual conversations with CSU, Chico students and in the Harvard study, which shows that correlates of underage binge drinking include residence in a fraternity or sorority, easy access to alcohol, obtaining drinks at lower prices, and drinking beer. It's a socially acceptable drug, and many local businesses make a lot of money from it. The most noticeable are the dollar drink specials and "pub crawls" promoted by bars, providing students with added incentives to drink more and drink faster.

"We have to get the bar owners to be more responsible than they are," says Esteban. "On St. Patrick's Day, when they open bars at 6 a.m. and provide drinks at a reduced price, all it does is encourage people to drink. When they have bar crawls, all they're doing is encouraging people to drink more."

While bar policies are seen as part of the problem, it probably will take a community effort to work out the best solutions to this complex issue. "I think the solution, frankly, must be multifaceted," says Esteban. "I don't think any one thing is going to work."

A new approach
One effort that the university hopes will be successful is a new marketing campaign starting this spring. Last fall, CADEC received the results of its spring 2000 survey of alcohol and other drug use among CSU, Chico students. This random sample survey of 1,192 students is the springboard for a three-year "social norming" campaign, called "Reality Check," that will target alcohol use among students, particularly high-risk drinking.

Some results of the survey are encouraging, such as that "60 percent of students drink two or fewer times per week." But it also shows that 93 percent of students had imbibed alcohol, higher than the national average of 85 percent. A key finding of the survey is that CSU, Chico students substantially overestimate the frequency and amount of alcohol use by fellow students. The following example shows the gap between perception and reality:

Perception: 84 percent of CSU, Chico students believe the average CSU, Chico student drinks three times a week or more.

Reality: In fact, only 40 percent drink that often.

Armed with this and other statistics from the campus survey, the Reality Check campaign will attempt to change students' perceptions. The concept is to show students that their peers are not drinking as much as they think they are, and with this knowledge, perhaps the students will feel less pressure to drink. Other universities report using the social norming model with success. Northern Illinois University experienced a 44-percent reduction in high-risk drinking over nine years, and the University of Arizona experienced a 28-percent reduction in just three years.

The campaign is primarily funded over the next three years by a gift from CSU, Chico alumna Nancy Hodges, in memory of her daughter, who started drinking in college and died at the age of 29 from cirrhosis of the liver. The campaign will blanket the campus with posters, newspaper ads, and e-mail announcements to show the key misperceptions that students have about their peers and drinking. For more information, contact CADEC at 530-898-6450, or visit their Web site at www.csuchico.edu/cadec.

This campaign and other efforts by the campus and the community aim to create a fundamental shift in the way students drink. Freshman Shay Har-Noy, Heideman's hall mate for the short time he was at CSU, Chico, says that the death of his friend changed his perspective.

"Adrian's death made me realize more than anything that you don't really have to drink to have a good time," says Har-Noy. "Adrian died from something that was supposed to be a fun activity. It's kind of stupid the way that it happened, and we need to prevent it from happening again."

     
   



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