May 2009

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An ounce of prevention
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Arvin Scott

An ounce of prevention

UGA’s alcohol education programs have a tough mission—changing a culture

An ounce of prevention

There’s no shortage of nightlife for UGA students who drink alcohol. Downtown Athens—located across the street from UGA’s famous Arch—features 40 bars and clubs.

A 20-year-old University of Georgia student who tried to drive home after a night of drinking passed out at a stop sign Sunday with the car still running, police said. An officer found the woman about 1:45 a.m. at the intersection of Woodland Hills Drive and South Milledge Avenue. The woman was hunched over and clutching a cell phone, with the engine running and the vehicle in drive, according to police. The officer reached inside the car, put it in park and turned off the ignition. The woman, who awoke a few minutes later, told police she’d had too much alcohol while playing a game of beer pong at a house party earlier that night, police said. Police arrested the student for driving under the influence and underage possession of alcohol. —Athens Banner-Herald, Jan. 18, 2009

The story above is exactly the kind of incident that UGA administrators would like to prevent.

One of those administrators is Kim Ellis. During summer orientation sessions, she explains UGA’s policies on alcohol to several thousand incoming freshmen. She outlines the minimum sanctions for possession or consumption of alcohol: first violation, alcohol awareness class and probation for six or 12 months; second violation, suspension for current and one subsequent semester. When Ellis gives them advice on what will attract police attention—jaywalking, public urination, falling asleep in a bush—the students laugh.

And yet within the first month of fall semester, at least one of those students will get caught with alcohol and will be required to visit Ellis in her official capacity as associate dean of students for judicial programs.

“They come in and I say, ‘What did I tell you?’” Ellis says, “and they say ‘I know.’”

Not all college students, or all UGA students, consume alcohol. But of those who do, a percentage make poor decisions—the kinds of decisions that lead to accidents and headlines. Alan Campbell refers to this percentage as a “visible minority.”

“It’s actually a relatively small percentage of our students who are engaging in some really visible misconduct,” says Campbell, senior associate dean for student support.

According to Mike Friedline, alcohol/drug counselor at the University Health Center (UHC), that number is about 20 percent in any college population. The number of students who drink is much higher: The Core Alcohol and Other Drug Survey, conducted at UGA in 2007, indicated that 72 percent of UGA students had consumed alcohol within the previous 30 days. Nationally, that figure was 71 percent in 2005.

Many of these students had their first drink before they arrived on campus. Forty-five percent of 12th graders, 34 percent of 10th graders and 17 percent of 8th graders surveyed reported using alcohol in the past 30 days, according to a study published in 2006 by the National Institutes of Health.

“Many parents think that their student never drank until they got here,” Campbell says. “It’s frustrating when people define it strictly as a UGA problem.”

Regardless of when they begin, students will drink alcohol—it’s an accepted fact at UGA, although no one condones drinking among students under 21. But everyone recognizes that the Animal House attitude is ingrained within our culture’s notion of college life, and UGA’s reputation in this area extends well beyond the boundaries of campus. UGA is a perennial favorite on The Princeton Review’s annual ranking of top party schools, placing seventh this year.

Junior Kiel Zanone, 21, served as an orientation leader last summer and was asked frequently about UGA’s reputation as a party school.

“It’s frustrating, because there’s so much academic integrity here,” she says.

Junior Darryl Tricksey, 20, agrees.

“The reputation is deserved, but it’s no different than other schools,” he says. “The party and academic co-exist.”

UGA’s academic rise has been clouded somewhat by the party school reputation. Like other universities, UGA has had its share of fatal incidents involving students and alcohol. The best known of these is probably Lewis Fish, who died in 2006 at the age of 19 from a lethal mixture of alcohol and illegal drugs. These cases concern Campbell the most.

“I see how problematic the high-risk behavior can be in the lives of our students, so that’s really my concern,” Campbell says. “I’m not as concerned about the students that are drinking responsibly and engaging in low-risk behavior. That’s an issue and it’s one that’s likely to result in consequences for the student, but I’m much more concerned about the high-risk behavior.”

Jack Fontaine (M ’79) knows something about high-risk behavior. His battle with alcohol and drug addiction began while he was a student and continued for a decade before he got it under control. And though Fontaine stayed clean and sober, alcohol affected his life again in 2000 when his son John, 16, was killed in a car accident. John was riding with a friend who’d been drinking.

In 2006 Jack and his wife, Nancy, endowed UGA’s John Fontaine, Jr. Center for Alcohol Awareness and Education. The $2 million gift honored their late son and supported their desire to prevent others from experiencing the pain of addiction or worse.

“Nancy and I did this for one person—that was our son. We’re satisfied if we save just one person,” Jack says. “The significance of one person is tremendous. One person could have saved John’s life.”

The Fontaine Center provided support that gave UHC new resources: the CORE survey on alcohol use, a computerized screening program to assess student needs, a graduate assistant and a variety of handout materials—including coasters that explain the 0-1-3 low-risk drinking guideline. (Zero alcohol if you’re under 21; one drink per hour; no more than three drinks on any day and never three drinks daily.)

“The Fontaine Center has led to a cohesive and more concise concept of alcohol education and prevention,” says Gloria Varley, assistant director of UHC and manager of the Fontaine Center.

The Fontaine Center also provided a public face for a movement that was reaching a critical mass by 2006. A year earlier, President Michael Adams expressed concern about the consequences of the party school mentality.

“If there is a growing belief here that Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday nights are no different than Friday night, then we have a problem, and we need to address it,” he said in his January 2005 State of the University address.

A year later UGA police began arresting underage students with alcohol, rather than simply citing them. In April 2006, UGA’s minimum sanctions were established and the parental notification policy (requiring judicial programs to notify parents when an underage student is found to have violated UGA’s Code of Conduct on alcohol) was upgraded to apply to the first and all subsequent offenses. That same month, a mandatory online alcohol education program for freshmen was stipulated—with students unable to register for classes until they’ve passed the test administered at the end of the program.

Partnerships between campus and community allowed educators to send a consistent message, for the first time, and to reach students in a variety of ways. Orientation sessions, run by the admissions office, include alcohol education for both students and parents. Athens-Clarke County automatically sends police reports to UGA’s judicial programs office. The Athletic Association’s Choices program provides alcohol education to freshman athletes. These are just a few of the groups involved in getting the word out.

“It takes a village,” says Erin English, alcohol/drug prevention coordinator at UHC. “It’s a group effort, really.”

So with all of these groups dedicated to promoting a common message, how did the student at the beginning of the story end up passed out over her steering wheel?

“We can say things; folks aren’t necessarily going to hear it,” Friedline says. “We’ve got to figure out a different way to have that impact.”

In addition, knowledge does not always lead directly to behavior, says English.

“A lot of people know what to eat to be healthy, and they don’t do it,” she says.

Alcohol also has different implications than other health issues—sex, for example. In Varley’s 22 years at UGA, she’s found that students are far more interested in learning about sexual health, which is associated with disease and death, than alcohol, which is associated with fun and partying.

“It is a culture change. There is no question,” Varley says. “College campuses all over the country are working on changing a culture, a culture of drinking, and as we always joke, ‘It doesn’t just take a village; it takes the whole Bulldog Nation.’”

It’s a sunny afternoon in February, and junior Connor McCarthy is sitting outside in downtown Athens. McCarthy is former president of the Student Government Association and a tour guide at the Visitors Center, so he knows a lot of UGA folklore.

As one story goes, UGA’s founders considered several sites when deciding where to place campus. They looked at a site in nearby Watkinsville but ultimately rejected it because there was a tavern nearby. They were concerned that “spirits” would be a bad influence on students, so instead they chose the current location—which in 1801 was a forest.

McCarthy is at a pub when he tells this story. The UGA Arch that marks the edge of campus is about 100 feet away.

“The second you take a single step off campus, you’re downtown,” he says. “And we have one of the larger bar scenes in the nation.”

Two hundred years after founder Abraham Baldwin tried to steer UGA students down the straight and narrow, alcohol is still an issue. It may not be part of the campus, but it’s part of the culture. And UGA administrators will continue to search for new ways to approach an old problem.

“What does it take to change a culture?” Varley says. “We ask ourselves that all the time.”

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