April 28, 2011

After Deaths, College Officials Discuss Underage Drinking

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Correction appended.

Prof. Joseph Cheng, Ithaca College, spoke about the prevention of underage drinking at a community forum Thursday which followed the alcohol-related deaths of George Desdunes ’13 and Cheng’s daughter, Victoria, in February.

“Our society provides much support for those who are addicted to alcohol, but what is done in prevention is much less effective,” Cheng said at the forum, which included Cornell officials. “Perhaps [as parents] we should have been more strict, or taught her more bluntly about drinking.”

Cheng said that underage drinking is a “moral” issue caused by a society which sends the message that getting drunk is acceptable behavior if done in a safe environment.

“Approaching drunkenness as purely a safety issue can be confusing for young people,” Cheng said. “You always see signs everywhere saying not to drink and drive. This is important, but it gives the impression that drunkenness is okay, as long as you don’t get hurt.”

The panel of officials at the forum — which included those from Cornell, Tompkins Cortland Community College and Ithaca College — discussed efforts on their campuses to combat underage drinking and addressed the inadequacy of alcohol education, especially when unaccompanied by other “multidimensional” efforts.

“Rather than single educational events, speakers, programs and activities, we need to be comprehensive in our approach,” said Program Director for Ithaca College Center of Health Promotion Nancy Reynolds. “Information does not change behavior.”

Gannett Director of Mental Health Initiatives Tim Marchell ’82, repeated the argument that education alone cannot resolve underage drinking.

“The problem of high risk drinking is not going to be solved with one single solution. It requires a comprehensive approach that looks at strategies dealing with both individuals and the environment,” Marchell said. “Education is necessary, but it is not sufficient.”

Though every panelist presented campus-specific programs, each representative cited online education, medical amnesty and BASICS, an intervention program, as critical pieces in their campus’ efforts to reduce underage drinking.

However, Marchell commented on a new multi-campus initiative led by Dartmouth that Cornell will take part in over the next two years.

“During this initiative, we will try and identify how we can take our prevention strategies to the next level,” Marchell said.

Audience members expressed concerns about a lack of action taken by the city government to control alcohol-related disturbances.

“On the Commons at night, between 11:30 p.m. and 2:00 a.m., the bars are blasting their music and the students are getting drunk. The students are screaming, they are yelling, they are vomiting,” Ithaca resident Fay Gougakis said.  “This is an epidemic we are talking about.”

In response to the concern of an audience member that excessive drinking at Cornell is rooted in the fraternity system, Marchell cited recent changes to the recruitment process that made dry recruitment a requirement for University recognition. Marchell also discussed plans for future regulations to curb fraternity-related underage drinking.

“We know that access has a significant impact on student consumption and that access to alcohol at Cornell is in our backyard,” Marchell said. “We are working towards having no access and no presence of first year students at these fraternity parties whatsoever.”

A different Ithaca resident asked why Ithaca College and Cornell have not followed TC3 in creating a dry campus.

Though Ithaca College’s representative did not comment, Marchell said that the issue of defining “on campus” makes the consideration of a dry Cornell extremely complicated. Cornell’s campus layout, where off and on campus are often separated by only a two-lane street, is the source of the confusion, Marchell said.

“When you can walk across the street to a party, is the campus dry? The idea of making Cornell a dry campus is not as simple as passing a policy making Cornell alcohol free,” Marchell said.

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article gave the wrong name of Ithaca College Professor Cheng’s daughter. Her name was Victoria, not Tiffany.

Original Author: Kayla DeLeon