On March 3, 23-year-old Jonathan Morales, a student at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, died when he fell from a fourth-floor balcony after drinking with friends to celebrate a student tradition known as "Unofficial St. Patrick's Day." He probably would be alive today, instead of being mourned by his family, had a culture of binge drinking not been allowed to flourish, virtually unchallenged, across America's campuses.
Some 40 percent of college students acknowledge that they binge drink, frequently to the point of blacking out. Many say they arrive at college with established drinking habits that are then exacerbated by the environment. The combination of alcohol familiarity and social pressure to drink as a way of loosening inhibitions is taking a heavy toll on the intellectual and social lives of students.
The National Institute on Alcohol, Abuse and Alcoholism provides some frightening annual statistics regarding drinking and college students ages 18 to 24. The research shows:
1. About 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor-vehicle crashes.
2. Some 696,000 students are assaulted by other students who have been drinking.
3. Nearly 100,000 students report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.
More students than ever before say they drink to get drunk, choose hard liquor over beer and drink before social events. Many acknowledge their goal is to black out. With a wealth of information about the dangers of excessive drinking, and strategies for successful intervention and prevention, why has campus drinking escalated into a public health crisis?
Lack of enforcement is a major part of the problem. Many colleges refuse to crack down on students' easy access to cheap alcohol or change lenient attitudes toward underage drinking. Administrators are reluctant to tangle with university boosters and alumni who defend rituals where drinking easily gets out of control. They also don't have established relationships with local politicians, bar owners and law enforcement to enlist them to enforce existing laws and end the culture of impunity.
In the wake of Morales' death, University of Illinois officials are working with local law enforcement to end the Unofficial St. Patrick's Day celebration, which many recognize as an excuse for students to get drunk on a day other than March 17, which historically falls during the school's break.
The event attracts students from across the country. Public- and private-sector employees say they can't do much to discourage legal-age adults from drinking when and where they want. That's a tired excuse.
Most communities have laws about outdoor drinking, keeping open liquor bottles in cars and over-serving customers. Though business owners might object, it's clearly time to enforce the law. Stop the weeknight bar specials and giveaways that attract business by encouraging students to get an early start on weekend booze-guzzling.
The college experience should be remembered, not mourned.