Battle Of The Binge

Last May, students rioted at Washington State University because the school dared to crack down on underage and binge drinking.

They rioted - not over Vietnam policy or civil rights, as students did in 1968. In 1998, they rioted over their presumed entitlement to drink themselves into oblivion. Alcohol fueled riots at six American universities last year.

CBS News Correspondent Martha Teichner takes Sunday Morning to one of the nation's largest and most respected college campuses - Penn State - for a view of how that problem is being addressed there.

"I think binge drinking is the No. 1 problem facing American higher education," says Graham Spanier, president of Penn State University. "This wasn't on the radar screens of university presidents two or three years ago."

When Spanier first declared war on campus alcohol abuse, he was out there practically by himself. Not anymore.

"We don't have a special problem here [at Penn State]," he says. "There's nothing different here than anywhere else."

That includes rioting. At Penn State, it happened last July.

"It was a customary summer party on a Saturday night in conjunction with a big festival in town," Spanier explains, "But there was so much alcohol that it got out of control."

It happened after the bars closed. The rioters were not all students. There were also some alumni and visitors. They did $100,000 worth of damage. A total of 14 policemen were injured, and there were 21 arrests.

"It was a riot, and it was mean, and it very much involved alcohol," says Tom King, chief of police in State College, Pa., where Penn State is located. "It wasn't a disturbance. It wasn't a disorder. It was a riot."

King says his department investigates around 9,000 crimes a year, two-thirds of them alcohol-related. Most are committed by students, who are often underage.

"Alcohol was used, and then someone was assaulted physically or sexually, someone's property was stolen, someone's property was damaged, someone served alcohol to minors, someone drove drunk."

Or someone died. At Penn State, four students have lost their lives since 1995 in alcohol-related incidents, including junior Leigh Ann Prevatte in 1997.

The horror of it was all over the local news. Prevatte was leaning out a sixth-floor window, trying to "high-five" a friend in the next apartment.

King explains what happened. "They couldn't quite reach, and the victim, to try to reach the girl's hand, went out the window and fell to her death. She had a very high blood-alcohol level."

Spanier's "state of the university" speech last fall was a provocative reality check for everyone associated with Penn State. In it, he said:

"I challenge each of you to think about having to place a call or write to the parents of a student who has died on or near campus. You only need to do this once before a profound sense of respnsibility washes over youÂ…There are data, nationally and locally, that show that nearly half of today's college students engage in binge drinking. One quarter of students at universities like ours binge drink three or more times in a given two-week period."

Thursday night is the busiest night of the week at The Lion's Den. It's the place to start the weekend early at Penn State.

Bar staff are trained to watch for binge drinkers and herd them out the door. The definition of a binge drinker is a male who drinks at least five drinks at a sitting, a female who drinks four.

There's always been alcohol around college campuses. The difference now is the prevalence of drinking for one reason: To get smashed.

"I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a college student who hasn't binge drunk, once," says Caroline Casagrande, president of the student government at Penn State.

"There's some kind of need, you know, if you want to fit in, or you just don't know people and it's, 'Oh, I can meet people at this kind of party', and you just go out and you drink," says sophomore Daniel Halperin.

He attributes much of this to peer pressure, "especially in underage people first coming to the university - either freshmen or transfers."

More than one-third of nearly 15,000 students surveyed in a comprehensive Harvard University study said they were binge drinkers in high school. So it is no surprise the numbers jump to nearly one-half on college campuses. Binge drinking is the whole point of that most sacred collegiate rite of passage: the 21st birthday bar tour.

"People buy you drinks, mostly shots, and the tradition is to do as many as you can, until you throw up Â…or you pass outÂ…horrible things like that," says senior Andrea Prinzi. "I only had a few drinks and went home."

Penn State has begun sending every student about to turn 21 a little birthday greeting. Last year, the letter says, over 100 students were hospitalized for acute alcohol poisoning after celebrating their 21st birthdays. This sort of tactic has not endeared Penn State president Spanier to many students.

Students were angered enough so that when Joe Paterno, Penn State's football coach, won his 300th game last September, the cheers for Paterno turned to boos for Spanier when Penn State's president gave the coach an award.

But there are students like Kris Nafie and his roommate who think Spanier's war on alcohol abuse is just fine. Nafie lives in one of two "life houses," dorms where booze is off-limits.

"I remember some friends of mine saying, 'You know, man, you got to come out with us. We're really gonna get drunk, man.' And I thought, 'You know how much fun it is to be puking your brains out.' I don't see it. I don't see what's so cool about getting drunk."

Penn State's crackdown is aimed at students who do think getting drunk is cool. Penn State has taken significant steps toward doing away with the Animal House culture, but it has required help from local bars, the police, and even fraternities. Seven fraternities are going dry by the year 2000. The rest have agreed to restrict admission to parties.

Says Brad Nestico, president of Penn State's inter-fraternity council, "One of the biggest events was, I think there were three fraternities that got raided by the local police because they weren't following the policies they should have been following and that sort of was the big eye opener."

He admits fear had something to do with the change of heart.
"All national organizations have insurance, and when the policies are broken in a frat house - if there's a party and the insurance doesn't cover it - so therefore the chapter would be liable for anything that went wrong."

The fraternities support the university's effort to bombard students with alcohol-free social events. The fraternities recently organized a swing dance, complete with lessons first. The university paid for it. It was Friday night, and across town, Players was packed. The drinkers were there in force.

Meanwhile, at the swing dance, when the lights went down and the dancers got out on the floor in earnest. For a few hours at least, they didn't seem to miss the booze.

©1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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