September 11, 2008

Debate Continues Over Unsigned Amethyst Init.

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Even though President David Skorton elected not to sign the Amethyst Initiative, a proposal intended to foster discussion about the current drinking age, the debate on the matter did not end with his inaction. Nor does Skorton want it to.
This past Sunday, WVBR 93.5 held a Sunday Forum show featuring Skorton and a panel of students who were enlisted to ask the president questions.
One of the students, Shane Wax ’10 who started a Facebook group supporting the Amethyst Initiative, asked Skorton to elaborate on his decision not to sign the Amethyst Initiative.
“It’s basically a problem in human behavior,” Skorton said. “If you look carefully at the social science data, one change that was made that made a difference in saving lives was having the minimal drinking age raised to 21. There is no doubt that that saved lives in terms of automobile accidents and deaths.”
While many might respect this argument, the Amethyst Initiative is meant to encourage debate — signing it would not have meant Skorton is in favor of lowering the drinking age.
Skorton said later, “I think students and presidents and townies need to get together and decide how we’re going to deal with this. Today the drinking age is 21, so we need to find a way to deal with it in today’s circumstance.”
Skorton clarified that he is in favor of debating the issue of college drinking on campus, but does not believe that focusing the debate on the merits and failings of the current drinking age is the best way to go about enacting serious change.
“I don’t think that based on my read of the evidence that that would be a great way to tackle the problem,” Skorton said.
Tommy Bruce, vice president of University Communications, noted the very presence of the Amethyst Initiative is a positive step in promoting national debate. However, he agrees with Skorton’s decision not to sign because of the Initiative’s restrictions on the debate since it is “not focusing debate on irresponsible drinking,” Bruce said.
Many of the arguments against lowering the drinking age revolve around the fact that college students have developed dangerous drinking habits in their consumption of alcohol. Wax argues that lowering the drinking age back to 18 could combat college students’ tendencies to drink dangerously.
“I think it might help decrease the amount of binge drinking and [teach people] to drink more responsibly,” Wax said.
He argued that if college students want to drink, they are going to find ways to do so regardless of legal restrictions. Currently, their only options are to drink illegally, in venues virtually void of any type of supervision and restrictions to their alcohol consumption by bartenders or other adults.
Bruce does not necessarily believe that if students under 21 could drink legally, they would alter their dangerous drinking habits; it would take more than just lowering the drinking age to get students to start drinking responsibly.
Barrett Seaman is on the board of directors for Choose Responsibility, an organization devoted to stimulating debate about the presence of alcohol in American culture. He is also author of the book Binge: Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess.
Seaman agrees with Wax’s assessment of the potential benefits of lowering the drinking age back to 18.
He agrees that the inception of the Minimum Drinking Age Act brought on a whole new level of dangerous and destructive drinking on college campuses.
“We drank as part of a social event, not in anticipation of a social event,” Seaman said citing today’s tendency among college students to “pregame” by drinking before going out.
Seaman added that it is now dangerous for adults to be around underage drinkers, so they no longer inject themselves in student gatherings where drinking is going on to supervise. When Seaman was at college, he said students used to drink with professors who often served as “moderating influences.” Not only would students not want to get drunk in front of professors, but they would also see the professors drink moderately and would model their own drinking habits based on their professors’.
Seaman also said that while vehicle fatalities have gone down since 1984, hospitalization for alcohol detoxification has risen dramatically. During his four years at Hamilton College, there was only one student hospitalized for that reason. Recently, at Middlebury College with a small undergraduate population of only around 2,300 students, there were as many as 100 hospitalizations for alcohol detoxification in one year alone.
Organizations such as Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) favor keeping the drinking age. According to their website, “an estimated 25,000 lives have been saved” from motor vehicle fatalities since the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21.
“I think there are lots of reasons to question those statistics,” Seaman said.
Even though he acknowledges that fatalities have declined since 1984, he claimed that while there were many years of decline, the decline eventually steadied. In addition to limiting the number of drunk drivers between 18 and 21 because of the new law, new seatbelts, airbags and MADD’s own campaign preaching the need for designated drivers all could have contributed to lowering the number of fatalities.
In additional to personal sentiments, Seaman feels university presidents might feel disinclined to sign the Amethyst Initiative is because of the backlash from MADD. In addition to having a portion of their website speak out against the Amethyst Initiative, Seaman said MADD has been discouraging parents from sending their children to schools whose presidents have signed the initiative.
While many people advocate reinstating the drinking age back to 18, Wax warned, “If we go back to 1983, we’re not going to make any progress.” He stressed that even if the drinking age was lowered to 18, it would need to accompanied by other measures in order to create the most change and elicit the greatest benefit.
People on all sides of the issue stress the need for services to provide for people harmed by alcohol consumption, as well as educational forces to try and deter the trend of dangerous binge drinking on campus.
Tim Marchell, director of mental health initiatives at Gan­nett Health Ser­vices, highlighted some of the different services that Gannett provides including “comprehensive clinical care that integrates medical, counseling, and health promotion services, including: Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS).” Although they do not encourage students to drink, Cornell wants to ensure that students who require medical assistance receive it.
“With Medical Amnesty Protocol, Cornell tries to ensure that people who have been adversely affected by alcohol reserve the proper care without fear of being prosecuted for drinking illegally,” Marchell said.
Like Skorton, Marchell feels that much of the onus in bringing about substantial change is on the shoulders of students. “Overall, we need to re-shape the environment in which students make choices about alcohol,” Marchell said.
While many people have different perspectives on the drinking issue and many are very passionate in defending their own opinions and condemning those of others, Bruce stressed that it is important to realize that while people believe in different means everyone wants to achieve the same end result.
“I do think that everyone means well,” Bruce said.