College Binge Drinking & Hazing: An Emerging Epidemic

For American youngsters, moving away to college is a rite of passage the likes of which will never be experienced again in their lifetimes. Faced with sudden, unlimited freedom, college freshmen everywhere drink themselves into oblivion whenever they can afford to. Pregame tailgating, post-exam celebrations, happy hours, and fraternity and sorority mixers just wouldn’t be the same without alcohol. Weekends start on Thursday night, “chugging” is encouraged, and lifelong reputations for being able to “drink anyone under the table” are made or lost during this phase of adolescent development. Sadly, students think that drinking is the one and only way to socialize with friends and classmates.

Binge drinking is defined as four to five drinks in one sitting to the point of putting your health and safety in danger. The tragedies of binge drinking do not always occur in as a direct result of alcohol poisoning or cardiac arrest. At Virginia Tech, 19-year-old Mindy Somers fell eight stories to her death after waking up from sleeping off a bender and rolling out of her dorm room window. Mindy had passed out, fully clothed, after binge drinking and was found to have drunk the equivalent of five beers in an hour.

Fraternities and sororities bear the brunt of the blame for the phenomenon of “binge” drinking, probably because they deserve it. Sixty-five percent of members of the Greek system self-report as binge drinkers. Not only does the Greek system play host to the majority of on-campus parties, but older members frequently “haze” new recruits by encouraging or demanding rapid consumption of alcohol in a short period of time in order to determine who is “man” enough to become their frat brother. Binge drinking is not a phenomenon restricted solely to college-age boys; females are guilty of overindulging too.

When identifying who should be responsible for stopping such incredibly dangerous behavior, college administrators are well aware that they are at the head of the line. Perhaps in an effort to deflect some of the blame, colleges are now embracing the notion that reducing the drinking age will end binge drinking. In the United States, people must be 21 in order to consume alcoholic beverages. The regulation stems largely from the fact that the federal government will not give federal highway money to any state that allows people under 21 to drink. College presidents from 100 of the US’s top universities have banded together, calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age to 18, citing evidence that the current age of 21 encourages dangerous binge drinking on campuses. Founders of the “Amethyst Initiative” claim that adolescents feel that the law is unjust, unfair and discriminatory and routinely ignore it. The name stems from a Greek myth that the amethyst could ward off drunkenness if used in cups and jewelery. However, opponents such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) fear that lowering the drinking age will result in more car crashes and accuse the college presidents of looking for a way to evade responsibility for a phenomenon which is largely under their power to control.

Neither side would disagree, however, that binge drinking is a big problem on college campuses. Studies show that 4 out of 10 college students report at least one symptom of a problem with alcohol. It is estimated that half a million students suffer drinking-related injuries each year; 1700 die as a result. One argument in favor of lowering the drinking age is that by the time the 18 year old gets to college, the novelty of being able to drink non-stop may have already worn off.

Such “binge” drinking can have severe consequences on the student’s health and even lead to death. In 1997 at Lousiana State University (LSU) at Baton Rouge, new pledges to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity looked forward to a night of heavy drinking and began the festivities with a kegger. The party moved to a bar; after heavy drinking and throwing up into strategically placed trash cans pledges were taken back to the frat house to “sleep it off”. However, the night would end badly for Donald Hunt, 21, and his friend Benjamin Wynne, 20.

Paramedics were called to the house around midnight and encountered a dozen college kids sprawled out in the living room, reeking of alcohol. Paramedics were unable to wake four of the pledges and Benjamin Wynne was in cardiac arrest with a BAC of .588, the equivalent of 21 shots an hour. Donald Hunt was also in rough shape, nearly dying from the alcohol poisoning that would claim his friend’s life.

Leslie Baltz, a senior at the University of Virginia, fell down a flight of stairs after drinking too much and died. Even more horrifying was the story of Lorraine Hanna, a freshman at Penn who was found dead by her twin sister after having been left alone after a New Year’s Eve party. Toxicology reports found her blood alcohol content to be .429 (over five times the legal limit permitted for operating a motor vehicle).

Binge drinking and underage partying is no longer limited to college campuses. High school students, and even middle school students, party every weekend, and on weeknights too.

In 2006, the Haddonfield Board of Education in New Jersey created the “24/7” policy, whereby any student arrested for drug or alcohol use, whether or not on school grounds, would be suspended from sports and other extracurricular activities.

A female student recently filed suit challenging the “24/7” rule, arguing that the board has no right to regulate off-campus activities. Under federal law, school districts cannot suspend students from classes for illegal activity that occurs off campus. However, they may restrict participation in after-school activities as they are a privilege, not a right. Some argue that the “24/7” rule punishes only those students who actually participate in extracurricular activities, allowing others to avoid punishment. Parents argue that extracurricular activities are necessary for college applications and that the school board is treading on areas normally reserved for parental regulation. Apparently, the school board feels that the parents are not doing such a great job.




Millie Anne Cavanaugh, Esq. is a Los Angeles immigration lawyer and former insurance defense attorney. She is licensed to practice law in California and Massachusetts. The information contained herein is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as a solicitation for your business or as legal advice on any subject matter. You should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this information without seeking independent legal advice.

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