Brother’s Keeper

Posted Feb. 26, 2009, at 8:53 p.m.

The alcohol-related death last week of a University of Maine student renews the ongoing debate about how to best manage access to and consumption of this ubiquitous substance. As with the tricky business of sex education, advocating abstinence for those under a certain age is easy, but often not practical. A clear-eyed assessment of the prevalence of alcohol on college campuses should lead to developing a sensible safety net for those who would drink to the point of drunkenness and beyond.

Underage drinking figures into another recent news story, that of a Portland high school baseball coach and his wife being sentenced for allowing student athletes to drink at their home.

Clearly, teens can get and will consume alcohol despite the “zero tolerance” preaching by parents, teachers, police officers and other adult figures. Teens are barred from drinking alcohol in the U.S. out of concern for their health and safety. (It’s worth noting, though, that the drinking age in some European countries is 16, and in nearby Quebec it is 18.)

Last summer, with the health and safety goal in mind, more than 100 college presidents — including those from Duke, Dartmouth, Tufts, Colgate and Syracuse — signed a letter asking state lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age to 18, where it had been in most states in the 1970s. Their argument, based on what they have observed on their campuses, is that students arriving at college are less likely to abuse alcohol if they have had some experience with it.

At some point, most young adults learn to give up drinking to the point of inebriation and instead use alcohol responsibly. How to best foster this — as opposed to imposing a rigid age cut-off — should drive the discussion.

Another front on which college administrators could attack the problem is to create a broader safety net for students. This safety net can be woven by ensuring that all students are knowledgeable about the perils of alcohol. Similar awareness work has been done on issues such as drunken driving, date rape, physical abuse between dating partners and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

All students should know that consuming a certain volume of alcohol can be akin to consuming poison, and it can be fatal. They should know that someone passed out from drinking can choke to death on vomit. And they should know that drunken students can be a danger to themselves and are more likely to attempt risky behavior — walking on the ledge of a dormitory roof, swimming in the cold river, for example — while under the influence.

If peers feel comfortable summoning help for those at risk, college campuses will be safer places.

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