April 14, 2006

C.U. Grapples With Alcohol Issues

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It has been nearly a month since Matthew Pearlstone ’09 passed away at the University of Virginia, but Cornell is still struggling to move on without a student who was described by many as “brilliant,” “caring,” “easy-going” and “very approachable.” In the wake of this loss, even the University has taken their time to address alcoholism and alcohol poisoning.

“At this moment, [the question is], ‘What could we have done?’” said Sharon Dittman, associate director of community relations at Gannett Health Services. “That’s what everyone is thinking.”

In the case of Pearlstone, there is no easy answer to that question.

“When I read the news that Pearlstone had died of alcohol overdose, I was frankly not surprised,” said one brother from a fraternity that Pearlstone had tried to pledge earlier this semester. According to him, Pearlstone dropped out of pledging soon after he realized the brothers were “uncomfortable” with his drinking. Several other sources have said that Pearlstone was a heavy and frequent drinker, characteristics confirmed by the many alcohol-related Facebook groups he joined and by the comments his friends left acknowledging his drinking habits.

By any account, the warning signs were all there. But the question remains: what could we have done to prevent this unnecessary loss?

“It’s not something that just the faculty or staff can solve,” said Kent L. Hubbell ’67, the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students. “It takes the whole community. We all have to have the wherewithal to deal with it.”

Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant law ’88 said, “I am glad the family disclosed the role of alcohol in the death. It allows for healthy discussion so we can get something good out of this tragedy.”

Hubbell said Cornell was in the process of developing more programs and resources for students involved in alcohol-related incidents. Meanwhile, Gannett has an existing advisory program for students who may know individuals who are experiencing drinking problems.

“How do you become the person who does something about it?” Dittman asked, acknowledging that students may be hesitant to confront their friends.

Deborah Lewis, alcohol projects coordinator at Gannett, said that students are encouraged to go to Gannett confidentially to learn how to approach friends with this problem.

“After you’ve noticed [this behavior], express your concerns in ‘I’ statements,” Lewis said. “You’re saying this because you care.” If a one-time approach is not successful, Lewis suggested a “broken record approach,” where the friend in question would be approached individually after every other instance the dangerous behavior is observed.

Both Dittman and Lewis advised against group intervention.

“It’s more powerful to have individual conversations because [they’re] harder to dismiss,” Dittman said. “Studies … have shown that what peers say has a very important role, sometimes more important than what healthcare providers and parents might say.”

Administrators were also concerned about how to motivate students to call for help when a friend has had too much to drink.

Lewis pointed to a few reasons why students do not call for help: One, that they may also be drinking and their judgment is impaired; two, that they have become accustomed to letting their friend sleep it off; three, that they are uncertain of whether the friend is sick enough to go to the hospital. Many students are also uninformed about the Medical Amnesty Program (MAP) that Cornell initiated in 2002. The program aims to give amnesty to intoxicated students that call emergency services who might otherwise face adjudication for underage drinking.

The two primary goals of MAP, Grant said, are the health of students and alcohol education. According to her, the judicial administrator’s office retains files on students who are granted medical amnesty, but not disciplinary records. She added that the person who notifies emergency services about the intoxicated student gets “recognition for doing the right thing and is granted complete amnesty.” Grant also pointed out that there is a common misconception that MAP cannot be used multiple times.

“Our goal … is not to get people in trouble,” Grant said. “It’s to prevent Matt Pearlstone from dying.”

According to the Annual Report of the Office of the Judicial Administrator, 29 percent of violations handled by the JA were related to alcohol in 1995, “approximately 600 cases,” Grant said. By 2001, the number of violations grew to about 800, or 39 percent of total cases. Last academic year, alcohol-related violations amounted to 57 percent or about 700 of total cases. Grant attributes the rising percentage of cases to greater enforcement in residence halls and at events such as Slope Day.

However, Grant does not consider that monitoring Facebook would be an effective or efficient means of finding students who face serious drinking problems, despite the apparent warning signs on Pearlstone’s and others’ profiles.

“Facebook is used in some offices, but I don’t look at Facebook,” Grant said. “It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. It is not the best technique to figure out which students are in trouble.”

Studies have found that a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.4 is fatal for 50 percent of human test subjects. Heavy drinkers can reach concentrations as high as 0.6, or in extreme cases, 0.9 before death. In Pearlstone’s case, the coroner did not officially release his BAC at the time of his death.

Many Cornellians think that the dangers of overdosing on alcohol are easy to avoid as long as they know their own limits. As Dittman pointed out, however, “[Students] aren’t thinking about their limits by the time they actually reach their limit.” Lewis also pointed out that it takes about one hour for alcohol to reach the bloodstream once consumed. In such cases, letting a friend sleep it off is highly dangerous because their BAC may reach fatal levels while they are asleep.

Additionally, Lewis warned students that drinkers who have sustained head injuries, however slight, have a higher chance of developing blood clots, and advised them to check with emergency services immediately.

“I hope residents here would call the resident advisors for help if ever faced with such a situation,” said Manuel Allende ’08, Pearlstone’s resident advisor. “[Pearlstone] could have been one of your friends. I hope it serves as a wake-up call for others.”