How one Nebraska school cut dangerous drinking by a third

Members of Alpha Xi Delta sorority and FarmHouse fraternity play kickball at a sober “social” event at the University of Nebraska on Sept. 4. The Greek community has adopted stricter alcohol rules on its parties in the wake of the 2014 alcohol death of a freshman fraternity member. (Bridge photo by Mike Wilkinson)

LINCOLN, Neb. – On a searing early September afternoon, a young man staggered into a temporary police station set up just outside the University of Nebraska football stadium, helped by two officers just minutes before kickoff.

As thousands of red-clad Cornhusker fans headed into Memorial Stadium for the first game of the 2015 season, this 19-year-old student was headed to detox. “Hey Trevor,” the teen said in a phone call to a friend a few minutes later, his voice halting. “I’m at the stadium and I need help. They picked me up, I’m underage and I need help.”

The student’s blood-alcohol level would register a staggering .307 percent – nearly four times the legal limit for motorists, and beyond the point at which blackouts are common.

By campus rule, he’ll have to meet with the dean of students before he’s allowed in the stadium again.

About a mile north, dozens of young men and women, most wearing red and white Nebraska gear, milled about a home in the North Bottoms neighborhood, known for small wood-frame off-campus student rentals where parties abound on weekends and game days. Several openly drank beer and many of the students appeared underage.

After passing by several times, police finally had seen enough; the gathering was broken up. As part of the city’s efforts to cut down on wild parties, Capt. Anthony Butler wrote down the address and vowed that he’d look up the property owner, who’d be getting a call about what the tenants were doing.

And in the weeks after the game (a loss to Brigham Young), The Bridge Behavioral Health, a treatment and detox center in Lincoln, would analyze data from drunk students and fans brought in that Saturday to check for patterns: Did any bars or parties send multiple patients to detox? If they did, they’ll be getting letters from police too.

In a nation wrestling with abusive drinking on campus, alcohol researchers cite the University of Nebraska as a model for combating alcohol abuse. Here in Lincoln, school officials, police, healthcare workers and even bar owners work in tandem to curb binge drinking. The philosophy is full-throttle, across-the-board enforcement, an approach researchers say has shown some of the best results to keep college students safe.

“They’re very thoughtful and systematic and thorough,” said Bob Saltz, a research scientist at the Oakland, Calif.-based Prevention Research Center, which conducts research on dangerous drinking. The collaborative approach between the city and the University of Nebraska is the “gold standard,” Saltz said.

“Awareness stuff just doesn’t work,” he said, referring to the alcohol education programs most campuses employ. “It's the most popular approach, but we know that, in itself, it's not effective.”

Hard-drinking state

In the 1990s, Nebraska’s flagship public university faced a daunting predicament: Its students’ rate of binge drinking (five drinks or more in two hours for men, four or more for women) topped 60 percent, far above the national average. The school pledged to do better.

The task would not be easy. As a state, Nebraska’s adult binge drinking rate is surpassed by only Wisconsin; officials knew they were fighting not only freshmen students’ first taste of freedom, but an entrenched drinking culture in a state that supplied nearly 75 percent of the University of Nebraska’s 20,000 undergraduate students.

By last year, the university’s binge drinking rate had fallen to 44 percent among male students and 28.6 percent among female students, for an overall rate of 35 percent, nearly identical to the national rate. Far from perfect, but a sea change from a generation ago.

Perhaps more promising, the university’s dangerous drinking numbers have been trending down for over six years, according to the university. And the percentage of Nebraska students who said they suffered a blackout episode from drinking within the previous year fell sharply ‒ from 32 percent in 2012, to 22 percent in 2014 (the 2014 national average was 32 percent).

Yet despite the gains, university and city officials know problem drinking persists. In fact, the male binge-drinking rate still exceeds the national rate. So judge the university and Lincoln not by where they are, but on where they’ve been and the path they’ve taken.

“We recognize we’ll never get to a complete non-problem,” Matt Hecker, the dean of students, told Bridge Magazine during a campus tour. “It’s always been the harm reduction: How can we effectively bring down the high-risk behavior?”

Creating obstacles everywhere

Lincoln’s collaborative approach wasn’t always so seamless.

“The right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing,” said Lincoln Police Chief James Peschong, who has been with the department since 1975.

Before the university and city cemented their cooperation, each worked on its own to solve problems. When students got unruly in off-campus neighborhoods, city cops gave them a ticket that could be erased with a fine. The university never knew.

Peschong said the university had a “not on my property, not my problem” attitude. But after university and town began working together, that all changed. Now, landlords are routinely told about problem parties – they can even go online to see every violation issued at their properties – and can face substantial fines if problems persist. More importantly, unruly students, even those living off campus, also face fines – as well as administrative sanctions from the university, including the potential for expulsion.

For the first time, getting kicked out of school for a party miles away was a possibility, Peschong said. Since city police began cracking down on off-campus parties, party complaints in the city fell from a high of roughly 1,900 in 2005 to 561 through early September this year. Peschong credits the discipline that university officials now impose on rambunctious students for reducing the number of wild, off-campus parties.

“I think that has a far more ‘reality check’ for kids than a $100 fine does,” he said.

On the morning of the Brigham Young game, Butler drove around the North Bottoms residential area as plainclothes officers patrolled on foot.

Thousands of students and fans walked about, many holding plastic cups, others pulling coolers. As Butler’s cruiser approached, some hid their beer or abandoned their coolers, most likely because they were underage, he said. It was a festive atmosphere as parties dotted the neighborhood.

Still, Butler said, “There was a time when it was worse.”

On this Saturday, a number of cars were towed and a few parties broken up. A heavier hand was not needed, as it was a year earlier when a tailgate party at a nearby facility nearly turned into a riot.

“We’re not against kids having a good time,” Butler said. “But stay in control. We just want them to be responsible. A little moderation goes a long way.”

Despite the obvious staggers of drunk folks – one young woman walked right in front of Butler’s slowly moving cruiser, looking down at her phone – the day produced raised eyebrows but few fireworks.

“It’s getting better,” said Annette McRoy, a former Lincoln city council member who now lives in North Bottoms. She had sought help for the neighborhood before she lived there when she was on council. Now she owns a bungalow there.

A freshman death

Yet for all the steps forward, authorities in Lincoln say they can never afford to feel complacent.

Last year, the community was rocked by a tragic reminder of the dangers that persist. Clayton Real, an 18-year-old first semester freshman, who intended to return to his family’s farm after graduation, died after a night of drinking.

His fraternity brothers had acquired two cases of vodka, four bottles of whiskey and a keg of beer for a party in the North Bottoms where Real, a diabetic, got drunk and passed out, according to police. Afterward, fraternity members took him home and put him to bed in the fraternity’s chapter house. They knew Real was a diabetic and checked his blood sugar but figured he could sleep it off, police said.

He was found dead of acute alcohol poisoning the next morning, his blood-alcohol level at .378 percent, a pathologist said. The university suspended the fraternity, FarmHouse, and ordered students out of its chapter house.

In the wake of Real’s death, the Greek community enacted tougher regulations. Hard liquor (anything over 30 proof) is now banned at any Greek-affiliated social event. Such events must also serve food and at least four members have to remain sober. (Events at locations with liquor licenses, like a bar, are exempt.)

That the Greek community would police itself was a radical change that rankled some members. But that’s okay, said Caleb Hoesing, director of risk management for the Interfraternity Council, which sets rules and monitors member fraternities.

“We are the buzzkill,” Hoesing said. “We can be the buzzkill if that means keeping you safe.”

Kickball replaces highballs

There have been alcohol violations since and they’ve been dealt with, members of the Greek council told Bridge. But another outcome of the new policy and new awareness played out the day before the Brigham Young football game in Lincoln, on a dusty softball field north of campus.

Instead of a beer-and-wine “social,” more than 100 members of FarmHouse – which has been reinstated – and the Alpha Xi Delta sorority got together for kickball. No alcohol allowed. Although there have always been some “sober” social events every semester, there have been more since Real’s death as the Greek community tries to change its culture.

“We probably wouldn’t have had this many people two years ago,” said Austin Dam, 22.

There have been sober swing-dance socials and other events, events that sorority members are finding attractive, said Frae Binder, a vice president of the Panhellenic council, the umbrella organization for campus sororities.

While the change may be bumpy – older members still remember when rules weren’t as strict – the future could be different if the changes last and a new generation embraces them, students say.

“That’s what’s special about this situation,” said frat member Ryan Drvol as the kickball ended. “We have an opportunity to bring the young kids in to see this is what socials are.” Drvol has since posted a link to the frat’s safe drinking campaign online.

In addition to changing campus rules, Nebraska’s Greek community also helped push for a Good Samaritan law for the state. Like a similar one in Michigan, it encourages anyone who has consumed a dangerous amount of alcohol to to seek medical attention, with the offer of amnesty from alcohol-related violations for both those who drank too much or their friends who got them help.

Crackdown on bars, servers

But the Greek community is only one fifth of the overall student population at Nebraska, and the school and the city have had to rely on other tools to combat problem drinking.

Just south of the main campus sits downtown Lincoln, site of the state capitol as well as O Street, which features dozens of bars that cater to students.

For years, Lincoln’s bars had to make sure their managers had proper training in state liquor laws. But when college drinking became a broader concern, the city enacted a stricter law: Now, in addition to managers, servers – every bartender and waitress in Lincoln — must pass an online class on the liquor laws.

Lincoln Police Capt. Joy Citta said she believes this helped lower drunk driving arrests in the city – from more than 1,900 in 2010 to fewer than 1,300 last year – and the number of people taken to detox, from 601 in 2010 to 366 in 2014.

Data from detox

Also helping is The Bridge detox facility itself. While police departments in Michigan have limited choices – jail or the hospital – for the highly intoxicated, those in Nebraska can place them in administrative custody (with no citation or fine) in a detox center like The Bridge until they get sober.

In Lincoln, those visits give executive director Phil Tegeler of The Bridge the opportunity to offer health care and counseling to clients, while sharing – anonymously – data collected with police and the university. Every person brought in is asked a number of questions, including age, student status and where they had their last drink and where they did most of their drinking.

If they are students, The Bridge’s staff ask if it can inform the university of their visit. Many decline, Tegeler said, but a quarter say yes, giving the school another opportunity to offer its own assistance, not punishment. Many are scared to find themselves in a detox center and agree.

“We’ll have students who say ‘I had no idea’ or ‘I’ve got to change,’” Tegeler said, and their “visit” offers an opportunity for introspection that is essential to recovery.

What the center also gleans is a rich data set of those coming into the center – and where they’ve been. That information is shared with city police, where Citta gets a list of potential problem bars and landlords are told of potentially problem houses.

As many as 32 letters have gone out in a given month, letting bars know the police are monitoring their serving practices, Citta said.

Beyond the most measurable numbers – DUIs, binge drinking rates, visits to detox – Lincoln and the university have benefitted from others, said Linda Major, the leader of the university’s alcohol efforts since the inception of the coalition approach.

“We’ve created a safer environment for all students,” Major said.

Vandalism is down, physical confrontations are down and more students are staying in school and graduating. Are they all related? Perhaps. But Major said the school is making sure to stay vigilant as new problems arise, like a recent push to eliminate Nebraska’s “dry campus” status (students, even if they are over 21, cannot drink in dorms).

The level of dangerous drinking is falling because, at least in Lincoln, everyone’s on the same page. No one is working alone, not the city, not the university, not The Bridge. The problem affects everyone and everyone says they are looking for solutions.

“We get nothing by being in isolation,” Tegeler said. “We have to collaborate.”

A Game Day diary

In campus hospitals, beds full of drinking casualties

Stone-cold sober on game day? It really happens

What we can do to reduce extreme college drinking

How one Nebraska school cut dangerous drinking by a third

Drinking students ring cash registers: The business of alcohol

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