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Editorial: Bolder action needed to curb excess drinking

The results of a student online survey at the University of Massachusetts Amherst show positive signs in the battle against binge drinking, according to university administrators. The average number of drinks students reported consuming in a week was down from 14 two years ago to nine, as was the number of times students said their sleep was interrupted by drinking-related disturbances. Over seven years since the survey began, the results show a 20 percent decrease in heavy episodic drinking.

And 22 percent fewer students said the social atmosphere at UMass promotes a culture of excessive drinking compared to two years ago.

However, the survey highlights the shifting terrain of student drinking. More students reported bringing their own alcohol to off-campus parties while a high percentage of students — 72 percent — said they engage in what is known as “pregaming,” which involves consuming alcoholic beverages in dormitory rooms before heading to off-campus parties or other events. Of course what the survey doesn’t reveal is drinking behavior of the 77 percent of UMass students who did not respond. Any decrease in binge behavior is reason to cheer, but drinking continues to warrant attention by university and town officials, as well as law enforcement and student leaders.

Administrators are correct to express heightened concern about binge drinking, underage drinking and how they play out in off-campus neighborhoods. Statistics of another kind — arrests and citations — show a troubling trend in this area. This year, the Amherst Police Department has reported a nearly three-fold increase in the number of arrests or $300 tickets issued under the town’s nuisance house bylaw compared to fall 2011. A nuisance house violation usually involves underage drinking, but also brawls, fights and other riot-like situations such as hurling beer bottles at police.

In October, police discovered an underground off-campus bar and summoned 14 students to court. Another UMass report last month shows an increase in the number of students reported to the dean of students for off-campus incidents.

Despite data that suggests binge drinking may be on the decline, alcohol was a factor in recent serious injuries, sexual assaults and death here.

An 18-year-old freshman was allegedly gang raped in her UMass dormitory room by acquaintances in October, an event fueled by alcohol, according to authorities. In November, a 19-year-old student who had been drinking fell and hit her head on concrete on Fearing Street on her way back to her dorm and later died from her injuries, a tragedy university administrators chose not to disclose. Last year, a 20-year-old student who had been drinking fell from the pitched roof of an off-campus fraternity house and went into a coma with serious injuries.

As of last month, the Amherst Fire Department reported that during the fall semester on the three Amherst college campuses 43 women and 32 men were brought to the Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton in intoxicated states.

Underage and binge drinking can have severe repercussions. The U.S. Attorney General reports that approximately 5,000 people under the age of 21 die every year as the result of underage drinking — in motor vehicle crashes, homicides, injuries, falls and suicides.

Fortunately, there is work being done to educate area college students about these dangers. We applaud Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan’s office for taking a central role in an anti-binge drinking conference at UMass in September that focused on bystander training, in which students learned how to help their peers avoid bad decisions while drinking. The conference was co-sponsored by several agencies and groups, including the UMass Amherst Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce High-Risk Drinking.

These educational initiatives, among others, are worthy efforts, though clearly more work needs to be done to address not only binge drinking but also the problems it brings to off-campus neighborhoods. In our view, the new survey results and recent spate of alcohol-related injuries and crimes should be a call to UMass to take a bolder, more aggressive line against this menace.

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