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What If They Won’t Stop Drinking?

In the middle of Friday’s Verbum Ultimum about police and College administration responses to excessive student drinking, a D editor inserted an observation into an otherwise turgid paragraph that gets to the heart of the matter:

Although students should not consume alcohol to the point that a Good Sam call is necessary, realistically, they will likely continue drinking to such levels of intoxication.


Kattabos.jpgThere is no need to do a complete historical survey; we can safely stipulate that drinking has been a part of student life since Plato’s Athens and probably long before. Symposium means “Drinking Party” and the mural to the right shows young Greek men engaging in Kottabos, one of the earliest known drinking games.

There is also no doubt that adults have been complaining about rowdy, dangerous student drinking ever since — without result. To get 18-22-year-old students at a residential college to stop drinking, or just to stop drinking to excess, is about as feasible as transforming self-interested human beings into altruistic New Soviet Men. The Communists aggressively and unsuccessfully tried this for 70 or so years in the USSR; to divert American students from immoderate drinking flies against virtually all present cultural norms. The historical parallel might not be perfectly apposite, but the level of impossibility is equivalent.

Dartmouth undergrad drinking is typical of student alcohol abuse, much as students in Hanover might see themselves as exceptional. At Yale in the fall of 2009, a week before Halloween, at least eight students were transported to medical facilities from the curiously named Safety Dance (I wonder if there is a Danger Dance?). According to the Report of the Committee on Alcohol Policy in Yale College, dated February 20, 2006:

Alcohol use by Yale students is not atypical of the general college student population. In the year 2000, 77% of Yale students reported consuming alcohol in the past 30 days, and 2% reported consuming alcohol on 20 or more days during this same time period. Rates of heavy episodic drinking were also similar to national samples of college students; 41% of Yale College students reported at least one episode of heavy drinking during the past two weeks.

So where does this leave us in Hanover? There is no doubt that more than a decade of harsh College and Police enforcement of the drinking laws has achieved no success in reducing drinking. So what should we do next?

The College has relaxed its efforts at punishment over the past few years, and relations between students and Safety & Security have improved immensely. But Town of Hanover Chief of Police Giaccone’s response has been the opposite. He is like a father who, when he discerns that repeatedly spanking his kids has not changed their behavior, goes to his tool chest for a crowbar. Does Chief Giaccone really think that increased punishment will lead to a better result? This parallel is quite precise: the Chief’s harsh policies will lead to greater harm, not less.

There is only one way out of this town-gown quandary. Of course, Dartmouth always needs to work to educate students about the dangers of drinking; but more importantly, the College should put pressure on the Town of Hanover to find a new Chief of Police.

If there is no change in the current situation, the conflict between students and the police could well spin out of control. I don’t quite know how, but it now seems that an unstoppable force has hit an immovable object.

Note: I have no axe to grind with the Chief. I have met cordially with him in his office three or four times over the past few years, and we’ve exchanged many e-mails. This year on a warm July evening, we chatted for almost an hour on Main Street, after we met as he walked through town in a track suit. I can say as a friendly acquaintance that he is wrong in his policy on alcohol, and he is going to cause real harm if he continues it.

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