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Putting the brakes on spring break recklessness

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN
  • Star Tribune
  • March 16, 2008 - 11:19 PM

Last week, Hamline University put on a one-hour class to get students ready for the weeklong holiday. The title: "Booze, Sex & Spring Break." The gift for attendance: a plastic bag containing ibuprofen, lip balm, bandages and condoms.

The lesson: We know that many of you will party hard, but here's how to come back to campus alive and healthy.

Hamline never felt compelled to help its students get through spring break before, but the alcohol-related deaths of five college students elsewhere in the state in the past year prompted professors and staff members to take action. Hamline has now joined numerous other universities in holding spring break safety classes, focusing on preventing and responding to binge drinking.

"There are still enough young adults that drink to excess deliberately to be concerned," said Barb Bester, the director of health services at Hamline University. "If it was just a couple of beers to relax, it wouldn't be so worrisome."

Worries about her friends are exactly what brought Hamline student Emily Hager-Garman, 20, to the event. When spring break began after class Friday, she and five friends were going to pile into a van and road trip to Galveston, Texas, for a week filled with sun and partying.

"My friends are really, really excited about being drunk pretty much all the time," Hager-Garman said. "I'm definitely concerned."

For the vast majority of students, spring break is an opportunity to work some extra hours or go home and spend time with friends and family. And not all trips will be like the ones you'll see on MTV.

The "alternative spring break" has become a college staple: this year, a group from St. Olaf is heading to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi to help with continued rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.

Still, the State Department estimates that more than 100,000 teenagers will visit Mexico over spring break. The agency projects that "hundreds" of them will be arrested during their visit.

It's a place young people can get alcohol more easily, said Ed Ehlinger, the director of the University of Minnesota's Boynton Health Service. "And whenever access is easier, the people who don't have the internal controls and the experience with alcohol are more likely to get in trouble. I'm concerned about the 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds going to Mexico because they'll have a lot more access to alcohol than if they were going to Arizona or Florida."

Ehlinger said a woman involved in high-risk drinking is three to four times more likely to be sexually assaulted.

A 2006 poll conducted by the American Medical Association found that 83 percent of women said spring break trips include "more or heavier" drinking than what occurs on campus and 74 percent said spring break trips result in increased sexual activity.

Last spring, an Ohio University student fell to her death from a hotel balcony at Hilton Head Island, S.C., in an accident that authorities consider to be alcohol-related.

"They sleep during the day and party into the night," Bester said.

The items on Hamline's "Booze, Sex & Spring Break" curriculum include learning why women process alcohol differently than men, just how much alcohol puts someone in danger of dying and what to do when a friend has had too much to drink.

"There seems to be a lack of understanding of the impact of alcohol on women's bodies," said Hamline women's studies director Kristin Mapel Bloomberg.

At Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, the school's "peer assistants" spent several days this week pushing spring break responsibility under the heading of "know boundaries," rather than no boundaries.

"It's definitely more important now than ever," said Gustavus junior Kristin Mummert.

Jeff Shelman • 612-673-7478

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