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Whitewashing fences and campus alcohol prohibition

The recent deaths of college students in Louisiana, Massachusetts,
and Virginia from consuming too much alcohol are paramount tragedies
which we should all work to prevent. But if we draw the wrong lessons
from these deaths, they will occur again and again.

We live in a complex society, and perhaps no portion of our society
is more complex than a college or university campus. In a five-minute
stroll across campus, a casual observer can find students who are
undergoing a rite of passage into adulthood, others who are doggedly
hanging on to prerogatives of adolescence, and still others who are
well along in developing the key life skills of good judgment,
self-discipline, and mature, responsible decision making. The good news
is that the vast majority of students fall into this last category.

Let’s start with some basic facts drawn from a recent study
conducted by the Core Institute at Southern Illinois University. At
least two-thirds of college students say they don’t binge drink, 72
percent have never missed a class because of drinking, and 67 percent
say they do not drive under the influence of alcohol. Although these
statistics are not cause for complacency or inactivity regarding
alcohol consumption among college students, they do paint a more
realistic picture of a problem which needs to be solved and thus
increase our ability to find a workable strategy.

The fact is, the drinking age splits the college population.
Students who are twenty-one and older can purchase alcohol legally and,
according to the U.S. Census Bureau, account for nearly 70 percent of
the college population. In an era when many high school seniors take a
year or two off between graduation and their freshman year at college,
at a time in which a considerable percentage of all students spend more
than the traditional four years as undergrads, and in a job market that
requires advanced degrees for an increasing number of entry-level
positions, simple rules that try to ban alcohol from college campuses
don’t work.

That’s why these alcohol-related tragedies must be viewed in a
broader, more realistic context. Rather than giving in to the obvious,
understandable – but mistaken – notion that the proper response to
these deaths is to limit access to alcohol for all students, we need to
recognize that such a strategy could backfire. Instead of spending all
of our attention and energy on prohibition, we need to understand that
– like Tom Sawyer whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence – such a simplistic
approach may make an undesirable thing look very desirable indeed,
thereby promoting just the kind of behavior we’d like to discourage.

Now let’s apply the insights of researchers to this problem. Many of
those who have studied drinking among college students – such as Dr.
Michael Haines of Northern Illinois University – have noted that
distortions of what is really happening on campus have the effect of
“normalizing the misbehavior we are trying to prevent.”

In other words, if students – for whatever reason – perceive a
particular type of behavior to be the norm, groups of students tare
likely to alter their personal actions to fit in with the crowd. Thus,
by focusing our attention on the problem of binge drinking – a type of
behavior that characterizes a minority of the campus population – it is
possible that we are helping to create a “false norm” that encourages
precisely the type of behavior we are trying to eliminate.

We may be saying, “Binge drinking is a terrible and dangerous
problem. Don’t do it!” But at least some kids will hear, “Binge
drinking is what most people do when they’re in college, but you should
be different.”

As chairman of National College Alcohol Awareness Week, which was in
October, I know that it is more productive to focus on changing
attitudes that will ultimately lead to changes in behavior. We need to
make sure that students know that the majority rules – and that the
majority believes in and practices good judgment, self-discipline, and
mature, responsible decision making. And the most effective way to
spread that behavior is through peer-to-peer education that combines
positive peer pressure with information on alcohol and its effects.

Let me be very clear. For the 30 percent of students who are under
the legal drinking age, our message should be straightforward: “Don’t
break the law because not only is underage drinking illegal, it’s
dangerous!” For all students, our message about binge drinking should
be equally straightforward: “Binge drinking is dangerous to your health
and can be deadly. Don’t do it!”

But for those who can purchase alcohol legally, we should give them
realistic advice: “As an adult, you can choose to drink. If you do
drink, remember that the majority rules and do so responsibly.”

By understanding the complexity of a college campus, and by
recognizing that a large percentage of the students at most colleges
and universities can drink legally if they choose to, we can reinforce
the healthy norm. By spotlighting and drawing attention to the number
of legal drinkers who drink responsibly, we can help create a standard
of behavior that will change attitudes and actions in a positive and
nondestructive way.

DR. EDWARD H. HAMMOND, President, Fort Hays State University,
Chairman National Collegiate Alcohol Awareness Week (Oct. 19-25, 1997)

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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