College time is a risky time for young adults

Although much of the attention on underage drinking focuses on students of high school age, it’s the years that follow when alcohol use begins to soar.

About a quarter of 17-year-olds reported drinking in the previous month in 2013, when the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health was conducted by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. By age 20, more than half of survey respondents reported having a drink during the same time period.

That puts traditional college-age students in the middle of a critical period, when patterns of alcohol use can take hold. It’s hardly a new issue on campuses, but curbing early alcohol misuse has received growing attention because it’s tied more clearly to problems such as binge drinking, sexual assault and academic failure.

Efforts to control student alcohol use at University of Alaska campuses include booze-free events, dry dorms and programs that highlight responsible consumption.

Each spring semester, the University of Alaska Fairbanks hosts “Lotta-no-booza,” a daylong alcohol-free event that rewards students for staying sober. They get tested throughout the day, becoming eligible for prizes as a reward for their sobriety.

The timing of Lotta-no-booza isn’t an accident. The Springfest event coincides with Case Day, an unsanctioned tradition at UAF in which students attempt to drink a case of beer in a single day.

UAF Assistant Programming Director Cody Rogers describes Lotta-no-booza as a “very in-your-face non-drinking program.” However, many of the efforts aimed at not-quite-legal consumers are more subtle. In some cases, UA campuses instead focus on pushing alcohol users — both legal and underage — away from reckless habits.

‘Be smart about it’:

Amanda Kookesh, the University of Alaska Anchorage alcohol, drug and wellness educator, said it’s a realistic view of the issue of campus drinking. Although alcohol use is discouraged for underage students, those students are given information about drinking responsibly as they approach legal age.

Students are taught what a reasonable portion of alcohol looks like, along with emphasis on the importance of not driving drunk or leaving intoxicated friends behind at an event or party.

“If you are going to drink, if you are going to a party, we want you to do it responsibly,” Kookesh said. “We really want to encourage low-risk substance-use choices.”

Rogers said UAF takes a similar approach with some of its education programs.

“If you’re finding yourself in a position where you are drinking, be smart about it,” she said.

At UAF, keeping students from drinking is built around a simple philosophy: Make sure there’s always an alternative.

Anti-alcohol programming is a constant at UAF. Jamie Abreu, UAF’s associate director of residence life, said there are hundreds of alcohol-free events a year on campus such as game nights, movies and concerts.

“Alcohol and boredom should never be the excuse,” Abreu said. “There should always be something to do.”

For students who want a campus environment that’s more likely to be alcohol-free, there are options.

Skarland and Moore halls are alcohol-free because they’re restricted to freshman residents. Nerland Hall has been designated a spot for “substance- and alcohol-free living” for students who specifically want to avoid that environment.

Data as a teaching tool:

Offerings throughout the UA system were expanded last year to include AlcoholEdu, a subscription program that combines information and student surveys. It includes information about how alcohol affects the brain, behavior and academic success.

Rogers said participation is “strongly encouraged” for new students at UAF this year and may become mandatory for incoming freshmen in the future.

An AlcoholEdu survey also gauges student attitudes and habits toward alcohol. Participants take a follow-up survey 40 days later to track possible changes.

The data from those surveys is used to guide education programs at various campuses.

At UAF, for example, it’s determined that drinking is less common on campus than most students believe. It’s hoped that publicizing such results can ultimately influence behavior.

“Some students might think everyone’s drinking on the weekend all the time,” Rogers said. “We can actually get results from this program and say, ‘Not everyone’s drinking and you don’t have to either.’”

Penalties, but rarely charges:

The philosophy toward alcohol use at University of Alaska campuses also tends to focus on intervention rather than hitting liquor-law violators with criminal sanctions.

Students caught with alcohol at UAA go through a conduct hearing to determine what sort of response there should be. University police may get called, but alcohol-related contacts don’t get forwarded into the criminal justice system, Kookesh said.

Kookesh said tickets were once commonly issued for alcohol offenses but that they had little effect on the problem. The cases would flood the court system and were often dismissed.

Instead, punishments can include visits with a campus counselor, mandated attendance at alcohol-free events on campus, or writing an essay about the experience. Support groups for alcohol- and drug-misuse recovery are available on campus.

The numbers reflect that philosophy. From 2012-14, just 25 alcohol-related arrests were made at UAA. More than 300 people, meanwhile, were given disciplinary referrals for liquor law violations.

“If alcohol is becoming an issue in their lives, we want to get them to the appropriate resource on campus,” Kookesh said.

At UAF, police don’t rule out arresting students for alcohol offenses, but it’s still a relatively unusual occurrence. During the same three-year span, there were about three times as many disciplinary referrals for alcohol issues at UAF than liquor-related arrests.

“Although it’s a tool in our toolbox, we only use those things when they’re effective,” said Keith Mallard, chief of the UAF Police Department.

UAF holds a judicial meeting to determine what approach best fits a student’s situation. Abreu, UAF’s associate director of residence life, said steering someone into the criminal justice system is used sparingly.

“We’re really big on educational sanctioning,” she said. “Going to jail, you’d hope they get it but they don’t.”

Originally published November 4, 2015 by Jeff Richardson in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.