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Continued: For underage UW drinkers, an intervention

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 28, 2011 - 9:44 PM

MADISON, WIS. - The notoriously rowdy Halloween weekend at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will be the biggest test so far of the campus' new alcohol sanctions.

These days, underage students caught drinking have to attend an in-person intervention -- and pay for it. Same goes for someone sent to detox or arrested for drunken disorderly conduct.

The new rules represent the first coordinated response to alcohol-related incidents on a campus known for its bingeing.

"Frankly, we had a void," said Lori Berquam, dean of students. "Here, as at any other institution, there will be drinking. But it's the high-risk drinking we want to interrupt."

Colleges nationwide battle drinking with a mix of disciplinary hammers and educational tools. To deal with more students and fewer dollars, some -- like Minnesota State University, Mankato -- have shifted much of their alcohol education online. Others, like Madison, tout the power of in-person intervention.

A costumed freshman caught downing cans of Coors? He'll discuss the risks of drinking with professional counselors and a dozen other students in a dorm conference room. A senior who lands in detox? She'll cover similar topics, but in one-on-one sessions.

The pair of group sessions costs $78, while two one-on-one sessions cost $200. After adding fines and alcohol education required by the city, some students will pay more.

"We brought the cost to as reasonable a level as we could," said Tom Sieger, prevention director at University Health Services.

Not a lecture

About 100 students have been referred to the interventions, the most occurring around football games. The first couple of groups "were irritated," said Tami Bahr, assistant director of Connections Counseling, one of two agencies leading the classes. "And we could tell."

A session might begin with a talk about the drinking culture on campus. The students tell the stories of how they got in trouble. They list what they like about drinking -- and what they don't. They learn about what happens to your body and your judgment at different blood-alcohol levels. They consider what constitutes a single drink. A pull off a bottle of whiskey? A cup provided at a party? A shot?

"We're not there to tell them that you can't drink, shame on you," Bahr said. Instead, they try to give students the tools to stay safer. "If you're going to choose to drink -- and by the way, it's illegal -- here are the things you can do to decrease your risks."

The intervention model is called Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students, or BASICS. Hundreds of colleges use it, and several studies have shown that students who go through the course drink less often than those who don't.

So far, most UW-Madison students have left positive remarks on their after-class surveys.

"Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised," Bahr said.

Working with the city

Madison's new rules illustrate the complexity of a campus trying to coordinate its sanctions with those of the city. Some students cited by the city are now required to take two classes -- one provided by the city, another by the school.

The university is talking with the city about having its educational program -- and its fees -- replace those of the city.

If they succeed, the program would look much like that at St. Cloud State University. In 2010, the university teamed up with the city to require students ticketed for underage consumption to attend a 90-minute, $230 class on campus.

"So in the city of St. Cloud, a minor-consumption ticket is no longer a payable offense -- they either must complete the class or appear in district court," said Jen Johnson, St. Cloud State's coordinator for alcohol prevention and community programming. If a student successfully completes the class and a related online assessment, the offense is dismissed.

Before this change, the rate at which people with minor consumptions re-offended was about 12 percent. It has since dropped to 4 percent. Alcohol-related admissions to the emergency room also fell.

So far, little protest

Hannah Somers is from Pittsburgh, so "the whole state of Wisconsin is new to me."

As a freshman at Madison, she was "shocked" by the drinking culture. "I wouldn't necessarily say that it's an awful thing," she said. "There's a lot of friendship and camaraderie that goes along with things like tailgating. But it also makes it hard to shed light on problems that might be occurring, because people think, 'Oh, it's normal to black out every weekend.'"

Somers, now a sophomore, helped shape the new alcohol policies. She worried that students might resist them.

But so far, they've sparked little protest.

One column in a campus newspaper applauded the new program's goal but criticized its cost -- especially if course fees come on top of charges from the city.

"These additional charges ultimately suck struggling students dry," wrote senior Sam Witthuhn. "Adding on another $78 and three more hours of course time in the hopes of telling a 20-year-old he has to wait one more year before he is mature enough to handle his booze is excessive."

Cost concerns Somers, too: "It's what could make it seem like more of a punishment and less of an educational opportunity."

But student dean Berquam has no problem with that. "Our students are affording to go drink," she said. "Going to the bar can cost you $40 a night." So far, she added, no one has mentioned price being an issue for a student.

MSU, Mankato charges for its online course, with all fees going back into the program. The Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota does not charge for its online assessment. But "it's worth taking a look at that," said Dave Golden, a spokesman for Boynton Health Service.

In Madison, the days before Halloween bore the signs of the season. Pumpkins sat on the porches of Mifflin Street. Stores displayed sequined costumes on the sidewalks of State Street. Guys ordered kegs.

Carter Patterson strode to class Thursday morning. A couple of the freshman's friends have gotten underage drinking tickets and as a result, they had to take alcohol education classes, he said. They covered things like "how much they consume, how alcohol affects you."

Such topics "are not really new knowledge, to some extent," he said. "People know what they're getting themselves into."

Still, the courses are a good idea, Patterson said. He predicted that after this weekend, they would be packed.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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