By: Rick Hampson
Original Source: www.usatoday.com
FROSTBURG, Md. – When Jonathan Gibralter became its president, Frostburg State University was known as a school for those who’d rather party than study, a place of 24-hour beer pong tournaments and dime beer nights. Weekends began at noon Thursdays and ended, more than once, in tragedy.
On campus, fliers for keg parties slid under dorm room doors. The student paper had a “Drink of the Week” column featuring concoctions such as the Mind Eraser and Alien Urine (melon liqueur, peach schnapps, coconut rum and orange juice).
Off-campus, rogue fraternities threw parties attended by hundreds of students who spilled onto lawns and sidewalks. Drunken freshmen roamed the streets, cursing, fighting and stealing things, including the city administrator’s Nativity scene.
When NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold (FSU ’85) mentioned his alma mater in an interview on a Baltimore TV station, the interviewer snickered.
Which is why, on a recent Thursday night, the calm here was striking. There was partying aplenty, but no urinating in bushes, vomiting on lawns or sleeping in gutters.
There even were a few students in the campus library.
In a nation increasingly concerned about college alcohol abuse and its attendant mayhem — sexual assault, hazing, vandalism — this school has become an unlikely model of how to address a problem that seemed to defy solution.
This was Jonathan Gibralter’s vision: Rebrand Frostburg State by reforming it. Now, after nine years, he’s leaving for another job. But he says even the rowdiest school can curb dangerous drinking, if only its president has the spine for it.
“A lot of people have thrown up their hands — ‘There’s nothing we can do!”’ he says. “There’s no perfect answer, but if you really try, you can make the situation better.”
He’s 58, 6-foot-3, slender, intense, a man proud that FSU’s spring break coincided with the city’s St. Patrick’s pub crawl.
I challenge college presidents to take a stand,” he says. “I know it’s hard. It know it may cause problems with alumni or students. But if we won’t be leaders on this issue, who will?”
In lieu of one “perfect answer,” Gibralter has found many. Among them:
• Campus police patrol off-campus student neighborhoods, and the school gives the city money to hire and train its officers.
• A student who’s arrested or cited by city police also faces university discipline, and the incident is reported to parents.
• Friday classes are scheduled to curtail Thursday night revelry.
• “Dry” programs — crafts, magicians, sober karaoke — are offered on weekends.
• Freshmen must pass an online alcohol education course, with in-person counseling for those seemingly at risk.
• The school pays to train local bar employees and student group leaders on how to deal with drunks and alcohol-fueled confrontations.
Over the past decade, FSU students who say they binge — consume five or more drinks (four for women) at a sitting at least once in the prior two weeks — has dropped by a quarter. The average number of drinks consumed per student has been cut in half, according to school surveys.
Frostburg’s approach reflects a gathering national consensus: Although it’s impossible to stop underage drinking, schools can tamp down dangerous drinking through a combination of education and enforcement.
Later this year, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s university presidents’ group, which Gibralter chairs, will release a report on best practices that’s expected to include many tried here.
Frostburg’s experience also illustrates two surprising facts about college drinking nationwide:
1. Despite many well-publicized incidents, it’s actually going down.
Binge drinking among college students has dropped 13% over the past decade. Extreme drinking (10 or more drinks at a sitting) also appears to be easing, according to Lloyd Johnston, who directs the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey.
2. College students still drink a lot — usually illegally (about three-quarters of undergrads are under the drinking age of 21) and often dangerously.
More than a third say they binge-drink. About 13% are extreme bingers and 5% — including almost 10% of male students — have had 15 or more drinks in a row in the past two weeks.
Those numbers shock most parents and explain why, as Gibralter reminds his freshmen, about 1,800 college students a year die from alcohol-related causes (mostly drunken-driving accidents).
At FSU, which has about 5,000 undergraduates, an average of two students a month still are rushed to the hospital because of alcohol.
So Gibralter sleeps, often fitfully, with his phone by his bed, and prays that when it rings, “the call will be about ice or snow.”
PARTY SCHOOL PREZ
Gibralter claims that when he took the Frostburg job in 2006, he knew nothing of the school’s party reputation.
But that May, when he and his wife were visiting town, they saw a student urinate on the side of a parked FSU police car. After school began, Gibralter was out for a run one morning near campus. A student was sweeping beer cans out the front door of a rental house with a rake.
Frostburg had become a school few serious students chose to attend if they had the money or grades to go elsewhere; enrollment was at a 17-year low.
Then, in Gibralter’s first semester, a student stumbling out of an off-campus party slugged a 45-year-old local man who was walking home from work. The man’s head hit the pavement; he almost died and suffered permanent brain damage.
Furious, Gibralter called a campus meeting at which he announced “zero tolerance” of alcohol law violations.
To his shock, students fought for their right to party.
One student — he was in back, Gibralter recalls, wearing a baseball cap on backward — stood up and said that he had come to Frostburg to have a good time; if Gibralter was going to prevent that, he would leave and urge others to do the same.
Why was drinking so big at Frostburg? The place was remote (2,000 feet above sea level and three hours west of Baltimore) and cold (with 75 inches of snow annually). And there was little else to do in an economically depressed coal town without so much as a first-run movie theater.
So students drank, mostly off campus, where college administrators had limited sway. Frostburg police raced from party to party, once busting the same student twice in one night.
After the campus meeting, Gibralter formed an alcohol task force that included city officials and bar owners. Many of the aforementioned measures were adopted, plus some that the president at first opposed. (He was afraid free weekend van service to reduce drunken driving might encourage drinking.)
In 2008, Gibralter was chosen over 17 other college presidents to receive a national educational leadership award for his crusade against dangerous and underage drinking.
He seemed out of step with the times. Presidents of scores of other schools, including Dartmouth, Ohio State and Johns Hopkins, were arguing that the 21 drinking age was unenforceable, that it merely moved the problem underground or off-campus, and that it should be lowered to 18.
In November 2011, a murder at FSU seemed to make their point.
A 19-year-old female student was stabbed by another student. The two had clashed at a crowded off-campus house party with a cover charge and unlimited drinks — the sort of event for which Frostburg had been infamous.
The student, a beloved dorm resident assistant, collapsed on the front lawn, within sight of the campus’ oldest building.
Gibralter got calls from parents who wanted to pull their kids out of school. He described himself as “angry.”
A few days later, when Gibralter met with Mayor Robert Flanagan and City Administrator John Kirby, anger had given way to grief, says Kirby: “It was like he’d lost a member of his own family.”
The line between campus and off-campus, they agreed, had to be breached.
‘KNOCK AND TALK’
When Sgt. Tom Bevan sees them on the porch, he stops his vehicle and gets out. He greets three students, one drinking a Bud Light.
“Goin’ to get a little partying in tonight?” Bevan asks with a smile.
“Yeah, nice weather,” says Trevor Flynn, 21, who pulls out his wallet and flashes his ID, which Bevan jovially waves off. His primary concern is not who’s drinking, but where and how.
“Know you’re going to be using the porch a little more,” Bevan says. “Just remember to keep the drinks on the porch.”
“We can’t cross that!” agrees Jay Horvath, an 18-year-old freshman, pointing to an imaginary barrier across the top step.
“The line in the sand,” Bevan nods. “I just want to make sure you guys stay safe tonight, practice safe drinking.”
After a few more pleasantries he moves on, having completed another “Knock and Talk” – a pre-emptive visit by a campus officer to an off-campus house with a history of trouble.
Most of Frostburg’s 5,000 undergrads live off-campus, many in closely spaced, century-old, sagging frame houses that form an L-shaped corridor around the school grounds.
Patrols like Bevan’s are the result of an unusual agreement reached after the 2011 stabbing. Campus police have authority to patrol, issue citations and make arrests in the off-campus blocks, and the university provides the city with additional funds for policing.
Now house parties are smaller, fewer and quieter. Flanagan, the mayor, cites “the Dumpster test:” On Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, there are far fewer discarded beer cartons and pizza boxes.
Flanagan is a former cop who still drives around late on weekends to see what’s up. Usually, he says, not much is: “You can roll the sidewalks up at midnight.”
‘PROHIBITION’ OR HARM REDUCTION?
Once, colleges acted in loco parentis — in place of students’ families. “It’s not a legal doctrine anymore,” Gibralter says, “but emotionally, I feel responsible.”
The students he’s trying to protect, however, don’t always want to be protected.
Although most won’t say so on the record — they stay on message, which is that FSU has changed for the better — some resent what they call Gibralter’s “prohibition.”
Katie Morgan, president of FSU’s student government for the past year, says she hears many such complaints. Personally, she’s ambivalent. As a senior, she appreciates FSU’s rebranding — “My degree will be worth more than 15 years ago.”
But as one who likes to party, she feels the school “has lost a lot of its fun side” and with it the need for students to learn to drink without a college to coddle them.
“This is where you should have to learn to balance things yourself,” she says. “If you don’t learn now, when will you?”
Despite Gibralter’s threat of “zero tolerance” and students’ talk of prohibition, the campus is not dry — you can have a six-pack in your dorm fridge if you’re 21 — and it takes several alcohol infractions to get in serious trouble.
When a drunken student returning from a school trip to New York went AWOL rather than follow the bus driver’s order to give up his booze, he was neither expelled nor suspended, but placed on probation (and later graduated).
Also, Frostburg’s reduction in problem drinking may not stem entirely from its policies, but also from demographics. Its percentage of students most likely to drink heavily — white, native-born men — has declined, while African-American and foreign enrollment has increased.
Frostburg’s binge-drinking rate, while lower than it was, is about the same as the national one. And Jeff Graham, student affairs vice president, says he’s not optimistic it can be pushed much lower.
The biggest mystery about college drinking is why so many drink so much so fast. To pose the question to experts is to hit a conversational pause button.
Even Gibralter is stymied, falling back on “It’s part of the culture.” He also cites stronger and cheaper alcohol, peer pressure and kids’ innate desire to test limits.
College students have always drunk (and behaved) immoderately or illegally. At Harvard in the 1850s, Henry Adams wrote, students “were apt to drink hard and to live low lives.” At Frostburg in the 1950s, when it was a teachers’ college, female students smuggled liquor into dances in corsage boxes.
Now Gibralter is leaving to become president of Wells College, a much smaller (and until 2005 all-female) school in Upstate New York where most students live on campus and there are only a few bars.
Gibralter seems likely to sleep easier.
Asked what he’s learned at Frostburg, Gibralter says: “You’re always just one party, one bad decision from a disaster.” With a yearly influx of freshmen and a public appetite for lurid stories of booze-fueled campus misbehavior, “You can’t ever imagine you’ve fixed the problem.”
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