Trends show efforts working to counter drinking culture at UMass

Last modified: Saturday, February 01, 2014
AMHERST — Binge drinking remains a serious concern for officials at the University of Massachusetts, but trends indicate that efforts to confront the problem are working.

At a meeting of the Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce High-Risk Drinking Wednesday, representatives from the Center for Health Promotion at UMass said a range of educational programs, alcohol-free events and enforcement are successfully countering the drinking culture.

“Everything working together has helped to change the environment” said Diane Fedorchak, director of the Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS) program.

Based on surveys conducted with students over nine years, the campus has seen a 34 percent drop in heavy episodic drinking between 2005 and 2013, Fedorchak said. Heavy episodic drinking is defined as women having four or more drinks, and men five or more drinks, in a two-hour period within the past two weeks.

In 2005, 59 percent of students reported they had done this sort of alcohol consumption In 2013, this was down to 39 percent, which is close to the 37 percent national average.

These statistics were unveiled after a fall semester in which Amherst police responded to fewer nuisance house and noise complaints and generally had fewer interactions with UMass students at off-campus incidents. This is also reflected in information from the dean of students office, which had fewer discipline cases to process through the student code of conduct.

The surveys show an even bigger drop in frequent heavy episodic drinking at UMass, described as three or more incidents of binge drinking with a two-week period. In 2005, one-third of students surveyed said they had done this. This had fallen by 60 percent last year, with just 13 percent of students surveyed saying they had such an incident.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan was among those attending the coalition’s session and praised the work being done.

“Congratulations, that’s wonderful,” Sullivan said.

Red flags

There remain some red flags. One is the high level of students drinking alcohol before they leave their dorm rooms, with 72 percent engaging in what is called “pregaming.”

Amherst Assistant Fire Chief Lindsay Stromgren presented data showing that 69 alcohol-related medical calls occurred in residence halls last fall, which is more than in the entire academic year as recently as 2008 to 2009.

Those in need of medical attention also tend to be younger students. “The vast majority of transports are for underage drinkers,” Stromgren said.

The issues with alcohol also show up in protective custodies for people who are so intoxicated they cannot care for themselves. UMass Police Lt. Tom O’Donnell said these are increasing, as are incidents involving marijuana.

Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said it is important not to focus only on one semester’s numbers.

Amherst Police Capt. Chris Pronovost said the department saturated certain areas but still could not deal with the many underage students with alcohol.

“We’re seeing a trend of more minors walking around with alcohol,” Pronovost said.

David Vaillancourt, associate dean at the Off Campus Student Center, cited the time, energy and money UMass has expended in establishing the Off-Campus Student Services office and creating the Moving Off Campus Online program aimed at improving how students behave in the community.

“I think the educational piece has helped,” Vaillancourt said.

The Walk This Way program, which has students on Fearing Street on Friday and Saturday nights, will resume the last weekend in February and run through the end of April.

Jillian Toce, graduate assistant at the Off Campus Student Center, said feedback from residents suggests the effort has not reduce the number of students walking, but those who do are quieter and less rambunctious.