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Church, schools face challenge of campus alcohol abuse

6/25/2002 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

By Tim Tanton*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - Religious beliefs can make a difference in helping young people avoid the worsening problem of alcohol abuse on college campuses, and United Methodists must be engaged in the issue "at every point of influence," according to a denomination executive.

Nationwide, drinking contributes to about 1,400 deaths annually of college students between the ages of 18 and 24, said Lynda Byrd, staff executive with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries' office on Substance Abuse and Related Violence. It also is related to 500,000 injuries and 70,000 reported cases of sexual assault or date rape each year, she said, quoting statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

"Alcohol is by far the most frequently abused drug in our society, college campuses notwithstanding," she said.

Byrd was a keynote speaker at the June 23-25 Institute of Higher Education, which brought representatives of United Methodist-related schools together to focus on the theme of "Changing the Culture: Alcohol on Campus." The institute was sponsored by the churchwide Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the National Association of Schools, Colleges and Universities of the United Methodist Church, and the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation.

The United Methodist Church has a presence among young people, with more than 120 affiliated colleges and universities, plus many more Wesley Foundations, Byrd noted. "We have access to hundreds of thousands of young people every day.

"At every point of influence, we must become intentionally and consistently engaged in addressing the issue of substance abuse," she said. "… The Sunday school class, the (youth) meetings, the Sunday evening and weeknight gatherings in the Wesley Foundation, and the many other captive audience settings continue to be unused and lost."

A Columbia University study, "So Help Me God: Substance Abuse, Religion and Spirituality," shows that a strong spiritual life can reduce substance abuse. The school's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse released a report on the study last fall. "It does make a difference when we embrace a belief in a higher power," Byrd said.

The study found that people who attend church once a week or more have "significantly reduced risks of drinking, binge drinking, smoking marijuana or using other drugs," she said. "Teens never attending church are twice as likely to drink; more than twice as likely to smoke; three times likelier to use marijuana; four times more likely to use illicit drugs."

Insurance executive Larry Deger noted in a later presentation that students who drink the least are those who attend religious institutions, two-year institutions and historically black colleges and universities. Deger is vice president for risk management with Educational & Institutional Insurance Administrators, a Chicago-based consortium that insures many small, religiously affiliated schools.

Participants at the conference shared common problems as well as solutions that are working on their campuses. Many described a "culture of alcohol" at their schools and the impact that peer pressure has on student drinking.

Several participants raised questions about what one person described as a "double standard" in the church. They noted that the United Methodist Book of Discipline calls for abstinence from alcohol while many church leaders drink, even if only in moderation. How can students be expected to abstain from alcohol when their teachers, church leaders, and college staff and trustees imbibe it?

The denomination's 2000 General Conference adopted several statements on alcohol abuse, which were placed in the Book of Resolutions. One, titled "Drinking on Campus," recognized problems related to under-age and binge drinking and urged church groups to work with school officials on reducing drinking. Another, "Keeping Children Free of Drugs and Alcohol," called on the church to support legislation that would curtail the use of drugs and alcohol by young people.

Forbidding alcohol on campus doesn't guarantee students aren't drinking. As far as students are concerned, "dry campus" status simply means "we're playing the church game," said one official. Another said that his school was a dry campus on paper but that drinking had been driven off campus. He told of a student who had been in a coma for 18 hours after binge drinking off campus; the young person survived.

"Consuming alcohol and drugs is not a behavioral phenomenon; it is a cultural phenomenon," said Sally Walker, dean of students and vice president of student affairs at United Methodist-related Albion (Mich.) College. The schools must help their students gain perspective on their culture and their own actions, she said, emphasizing that only students can change their culture.

Walker described a two-pronged approach built around policies and procedures, and intervention and prevention programs.

Campus officials must be sure their approach to the problem is in sync with the school's trustees and executive committee, she said. School officials should work with the students to review guidelines annually, and the school should talk continually about safety with students, she said.

Albion has a 10-point policy that bars students under 21 from having alcohol and forbids the provision of hard liquor to anyone. Kegs and party balls are not allowed on campus, and references to alcohol in event advertising are forbidden. Alcohol consumed at an off-campus event sponsored by a student organization must be provided by a third-party vendor with a permanent liquor license and liability insurance.

The school's intervention policy provides for the involvement of staff, faculty and, as a last resort, family members in addressing student substance abuse. Alcohol education is required in first-offense cases, followed by alcohol and drug assessments for second offenses. In serious cases, consultants and psychiatrists might be brought in.

Albion also offers focused programs, such as a no-questions-asked cab service, and it fosters peer-education groups to train students to be positive role models on campus.

The college is working on a new building where students will be able to gather, dance and have fun, Walker said. Other conference participants described similar venues at their schools, as well as initiatives such as holding block parties.

Deger suggested additional ideas: coffee houses, root beer keggers, and a regular activity night that would be hosted by campus-sponsored clubs on a rotating basis.

He recommended that schools hold orientation training and alcohol 101 classes each semester. Classes should be scheduled on all weekday mornings to reduce late-night partying, and teachers should vary their testing schedule by having random test days.

Having lenient policies and procedures that are well enforced is better than having strict policies and procedures that are not enforced, Deger said. Plaintiffs' attorneys love cases in which schools have failed to enforce their own strict policies, he said. "If you're going to have a policy that bans alcohol on campus, it's important that you enforce that policy and stand behind it 100 percent."
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*Tanton is news editor for United Methodist News Service.

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