It has long been believed that students learned to drink—or at least to "party hearty"—after they arrived at college. But recent research at SU and nationwide shows that heavy drinking and drug use usually begin in high school, if not in junior high. Since 1993, high school binge drinking has been steadily increasing, to 31 percent in 1997. The landmark 1998 Harvard study found that "a major determinant of college binge drinking is students' alcohol use while they were in high school." A survey of SU's Class of 2002 revealed that 85 percent were drinking in high school or earlier, 22 percent were habitually binge drinking before college, and 40 percent habitually used marijuana. "Parents often deny that this behavior starts at home," says Barry L. Wells, vice president for student affairs and dean of student relations. "They would prefer to blame the University. But we're now having candid conversations with parents during summer orientation. Most are shocked to learn that a majority of students arrive at SU with a pattern of using alcohol and other drugs."
      The University now asks parents to join its substance-abuse prevention effort. Each summer, Wells sends parents of incoming students a memo titled "You're Not Done Yet." In it, he offers advice on approaching students about these issues. "You assume parents talk to their children about these behaviors, but sometimes they don't know where to begin," says Dessa Bergen-Cico '86, G'88, G'92, director of the Substance Abuse Prevention and Health Enhancement Office.
      Oscar Pinoargotte '00, who keeps a watch on intoxicated students at the Health Center as a volunteer, reports that "the number-one worry when students check out of the Health Center after observation for intoxication is: 'Will my parents find out about this?'"
      Soon, the University may approach parents up front when their children are involved in alcohol- or drug-related violations of the Code of Student Conduct. "In the past, federal privacy laws prevented us from notifying parents until their students were suspended, expelled, or removed from University housing," Wells says. "The 1998 Higher Education Act opens the door for earlier parental involvement, which may help students head off bigger problems. Parents don't send their children off to college to be hospitalized—or to die. The University is doing everything in its power to enforce the law, alter the environment, and educate students about high-risk behavior. But to win this battle, we need everyone's involvement—students, faculty, staff, local businesses, law enforcement, and parents."
Few deny that binge drinking is in vogue on college campuses. But it's difficult to explain why students with such bright futures engage in such risky behavior. What starts students sipping is often a simple need to relax around other students. "Alcohol loosens you up and makes it easier to talk to other people," says Dane Martinez '02. Then there's peer pressure, especially freshman year. "Freshmen like to travel in herds," adds Mark Chorazak '00. "More than anything, they want to fit in with other students."
      According to Jen Doherty '99, it's easy to spot the first-year students every fall, walking around in groups as large as 40, looking for off-campus house parties with beer. "It's your first time away from home. You can stay out all night if you want. You're experimenting with how much you can handle," she says. "By sophomore year, the party and bar scene usually gets a little old. Careers and grades become more important. Then senioritis kicks in, and many students return to reckless habits."
      Margaret Kip '99, who drank less and less as her college career progressed, is perplexed by alcohol's hold over high-functioning students. "I see students who excel academically and contribute to the community in amazing ways spend personal time in such negative behaviors," she says. "I don't understand it."
      Neither do the SU professionals who address this problem. But they have theories. Barry L. Wells, vice president for student affairs and dean of student relations, suspects the liberalism of the late sixties and early seventies has shaped the students of the nineties. "The parents of our students came of age during the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the sexual revolution, Watergate. Some of them were continually challenging the norms of society by wearing long hair, experimenting with drugs, and involving themselves in the social issues of the times," he says. "Many found it hypocritical to take a hard line when they raised their children. Perhaps that's why these children are more open to experimentation and more challenging of authority when it comes to issues like alcohol and other drugs."
      Social work professor Paul Caldwell believes "our culture of excess" sets the stage for this reckless behavior. "We've taken off the constraints," he says. "There's more stress and less accountability. We also market things in extreme ways, to the point of hedonism." When you combine these external extremes with a personal need to numb feelings with alcohol, Caldwell says, "you create a very dynamic risk picture."
      Anastasia L. Urtz, director of judicial affairs, agrees with Caldwell, believing such behavior is a reflection of our society. She also notes that stress plays a role. "These students function at very high levels," she says. "They feel tremendous pressure to succeed and yet a tremendous need to escape this pressure."
      Dessa Bergen-Cico '86, G'88, G'92, director of the Substance Abuse Prevention and Health Enhancement Office, also sees large cultural issues looming behind today's industrial-strength drinking. "Some of this is about the demise of intact families, the deterioration of community standards and personal responsibility, and the decline in spiritual foundations," she says. "Many of our students are dealing with these losses. We recognize such risk factors for substance abuse among secondary school-age children, but fail to acknowledge that these are still factors among college students."

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