An off-campus, alcohol-fueled riot last spring confirmed what University officials and others have known for a long timestudent binge drinking is a big problem. But through a long-term comprehensive approach to prevention, SU hopes to break the bottle's destructive grip on student life.
It was like a scene from the 1960s, with a defiant crowd of Syracuse University students chanting, "Hell no, we won't go." Shattered beer bottles carpeted the street, illegal bonfires nipped at power lines, and police marched through in riot gear. While its intensity rivaled a protest over the Vietnam War, this violent clash on May 1 addressed a more domestic issue: the students' right to party.
At Livingstock '99, an off-campus block party and music festival held in the Livingston Avenue area, revelers turned into rioters when the Syracuse police arrived and announcedby almost all accounts, politelythat the block party permit expired at 10 p.m. Instead of dispersing, many in the alcohol-fueled crowd of 1,000 students and others challenged the police. For three intense hours party-goers hurled insults, obscenities, and beer bottles at the authorities. They stoked bonfires with tree branches, mattresses, and lawn furniture, then formed a human barricade to keep firefighters at bay. Finally, at 1 a.m., a reinforcement squad of 50 police arrived to quell what had become a full-scale riot.
By the end of the night, 39 people, including 15 Syracuse University and 7 SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry students, had been arrested on charges ranging from littering to rioting in the first degree, a Class E felony. Although charges have been dropped against some students, others still face University judicial and criminal court proceedings. "We are very fortunate that a neighborhood didn't go up in flames and that no one was seriously hurt," says Barry L. Wells, SU's vice president for student affairs and dean of student relations, and the University's senior officer on matters related to alcohol and other drug abuse. "You can analyze this a million different ways, but the bottom line is that this mob behavior was sparked by the excessive consumption of alcohol."
As one student pointed out, there was no reason for it. "The police gave us every chance to behave," Michael Stein '99 told The Syracuse Newspapers.
The Syracuse event, however, was not an isolated incident. Students nationwide are protesting the growing war against campus alcohol abuse. On May 1, 1998, 3,000 Michigan State University students revolted when alcohol was banned at a popular tailgating site. The same semester, 2,000 students at Ohio University confronted police when daylight-saving time deprived them of an extra hour of drinking.
While colleges and universities voice concerns about the full spectrum of alcohol and other drug abuse, their current focal point is binge drinking. A 1998 Harvard University School of Public Health alcohol study of more than 14,000 students at 116 colleges and universities found that 43 percent were binge drinkers, and 20 percent were frequent binge drinkers. For students in fraternities and sororities, the binge drinking rate was 81 percent. (The Harvard study defined a binge drinker as a male student who consumed at least five drinks and a female student who had four or more drinks in one sitting in the two weeks before the survey.) The research also found that the number of problems college students experience increases significantly when they binge drink. Many college students consider Harvard's definition an overreaction, but few deny that heavy drinking is a common occurrence. "Today's students don't go out to have a drink, they go out to get drunk," says Margaret Kip '99. "It's stereotypically what you do in college."