Less than a month into the school year, changes big and small are coming to Davidson’s senior apartments, which are frequently used as party venues. Students making the trek “down the hill” will notice water coolers in place outside every base level apartment that is hosting, starting this weekend.
The water coolers, which will be manned by the apartment owners, were paid for jointly by the Patterson Court Council (PCC) and the Student Government Association (SGA). They are intended to help students engage in healthier drinking habits while in these party spaces. If the initiative goes well, Student Activities and the Dean of Students Office will reimburse PCC and SGA.
The coolers were the brainchild of SGA President and Vice President Alex Soltany ‘18 and Malia Dickson ‘18, respectively. On August 30th, the two student body leaders met with all PCC presidents in response to issues resulting from excessive drinking during the first week of the school year.
Starting the Wednesday before classes began and lasting through the add-drop period, five students were transported to the hospital as a result of excessive alcohol consumption. To put this number in context, there were no student transports through the first five weeks of the 2016-2017 school year. There were 33 transports in total last year, up from 29 in 2015-2016. Despite the upward trend, both administrators and students alike cautioned the effects of concentrating attention on transports to solve problems.
“I feel like focusing on the number of transports for some people can feel like a call to action, but for others it can feel like a red herring. It can focus attention to the wrong place,” said Dean of Students Byron P. McCrae, who is entering his first year in the position.
Director of Student Life and Associate Dean of Students Jason Shaffer added: “Alcohol transports are only one indicator of what is a high-risk behavior and what is going on.”
Individuals also warned of the negative effects of stigmatizing transports, as well. PCC President Emily Yates stated, “I think that looking at transports as the marker of how bad our drinking culture is also irresponsible.” Health Educator Georgia Ringle echoed her sentiment, stating, “We don’t want to ever scare people from calling an ambulance.”
While the number transports does not reflect the health of the school’s entire drinking problem, some believe it is more indicative of deep underlying issues in the drinking culture. According to Dean Shaffer, “There has been an increase of warning signs that make me worried that the permissibility of high risk behaviors is going up and that students seem to be more accepting of things and reinforcing within a culture of things that will allow high-risk to get deeper and deeper and more entrenched.”
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL.” To achieve this level, it usually takes about five drinks for a man and four drinks for a woman, over a span of two hours, according to the NIAAA website. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states that “heavy alcohol use” is defined by engaging in binge drinking “five or more days in the past month.” College administrators cited NIAAA as a good source for looking at and defining high-risk drinking behaviors.
The Core Survey, which has been administered by Georgia Ringle to Davidson students every two to three years since 1996, looks at the drinking habits and patterns within the student body. The survey can help address troubling trends, as well as misconceptions held by students about their peer’s drinking habits.
Last year’s survey indicated that 58% of Davidson students used alcohol one to three times per week within the last year. “The perception versus the reality is stunning,” said Ringle. “The people that are drinking way over that tend to see that and start to slowly adjust down and the people that are in that range feel reaffirmed that they’re in the majority, that it’s okay to be this moderate drinker.”
“I would say that the drinking culture at Davidson is bifurcated,” says Dean Shaffer. “There is a substantial population of students who are making low-risk choices most of the time, and there is a small but impactful population of students who are making high-risk or very high-risk choices.” Shaffer said the school must correct the misperceptions and curb high-risk drinking behavior before it becomes ingrained in students’ mindsets.
The language and stigma surrounding blackouts in particular has some individuals worried. “The more [blackouts] become celebrated, the more they become institutionalized within the culture as acceptable, sought after behavior,” said Shaffer.
Health Education Office Fellow Morgan McGrath ’17 agreed: “We want the culture change to be in the conversations that glorify unhealthy alcohol drinking that happened maybe the previous weekend.”
In the Core Survey, 53.5% of all students reported having at least one instance of memory loss stemming from alcohol consumption over the past year. 5.9% reported having it “10 or more times.”
“I can’t believe that if we look at the brain chemistry behind blacking out, people wouldn’t want to step back from that with all the workload and memorization we need to do,” said Ringle.
First-years in particular inherit a sense of what the drinking culture should look like from older students around them, according to interviewees. McGrath said, “The younger students are so impressionable when they come to Davidson. A lot of them did not drink when they came here and then you have upperclassmen who have so much social power.”
“As a freshman I looked up to senior guys and girls and saw the ways that they drank,” said Dickson. Soltany agreed, adding,“[Change] starts from the upperclassmen being role models.”
Soltany and Dickson saw a need to tackle high-risk drinking head-on at the start of this year. The August meeting with PCC presidents that produced the water cooler idea also lead to the adoption of several other unofficial measures regarding parties, all formulated and enforced by the students in an effort to curb problematic drinking. Additional measures included 1) a ban on hard liquor at the senior apartments during parties, 2) no punch, 3) apartment bartenders, and 4) water pong in the place of beer pong. In the period following the August 30th meeting, there has not been an additional transport.
“Some of the solutions they’ve come up with, I honestly would have never thought of. Again, it’s a student experience and they’re thinking about how can we take responsibility for this in a really productive proactive […] I admire the energy they’re bringing and how quickly they’ve organized,” said Dean McCrae. “Nobody asked them to do that.”
Soltany agreed, “It’s really important to allow students to solve their own problems, or give them a chance to solve their own problems, before the administration can come in and lay down the hammer.”
There is ongoing conversation about how big a role “down the hill” drinking plays in the overall alcohol consumption of students. Dean Shaffer believes, “while pre-gaming is part of the equation, I think that being in places where students are able to get a large amount of it is a big part of it. I think that the larger gatherings where everyone shows up is a big part of the equation.”
Contrastingly, Soltany contends that students “are not coming down the hill sober. They’re definitely pregaming. To put the blame fully on Armfield apartments for transports and the alcohol issues we’ve had is unfounded.”
Yates said that adults on campus “don’t see it. They see everybody down at F and they see everybody at court parties. They don’t see what happens in people’s rooms.”
“It’s not just from one place,” stated Yates with regards to where students are doing the majority of their drinking. “If we had a giant bar on campus and that’s where everybody got trashed, that’s easy. But it’s because students are going six different places before they go to the hospital.”
Jerry Chang ‘18 expressed his concern over the hard liquor ban at senior apartments: “What I think could be a potential result of this new rule that is bad is that people then aggressively pregame where there is liquor. That is probably a lot harder to enforce. I like the idea of having water at F; I like the idea of having a responsible bartender.”
In addition to the work undertaken by the SGA leaders and PCC presidents, Dean Shaffer is putting together an advisory committee on alcohol policy that he hopes will “try and imagine what changes would make a difference to reduce high-risk drinking behavior.” The committee, which will meet about three to four times between now and early October, will be composed of four students, four staff members, and one faculty member.
The students selected so far are Jack Owens ’18, Cole Riggan ’18, and Emily Yates ’18. Dean Shaffer will select the fourth. Dean Jeffries, Georgia Ringle, Chief Todd Sigler, and Erica Urban will make up the faculty portion of the committee.
After their meetings, the advisory committee will come forward with recommendations. Based on those recommendations, they will either convene additional meetings or possibly hold large student forums and discussion groups. Dean Shaffer hopes the committee will “have robust conversations about the nature of the problem and brainstorm what kinds of changes to enforce or policy changes would really reduce high risk drinking and high-risk behavior, primarily targeting access to alcohol.” SGA is also forming a subcommittee to assist in making recommendations pertaining to alcohol policy.
Additionally, two days ago, the school welcomed Joanna Karibian, who will serve as Davidson’s substance abuse counselor, the first person to hold the position in 15 years. Karibian will be available for individual meetings or group sessions depending on the need. She comes to Davidson with a master’s in social work and experience in the New York City Department of Education.
“There’s been a lot of energy around this happening and it finally made it into the budget. We’re thrilled,” says Ringle, adding, “I credit a lot of the student emphasis behind this.”
Jack Robinson ‘20, the co-president of Changing Minds, a student club dedicated to tackling mental health issues on campus, states that the addition of Karibian is “a great thing to have on campus, so long as people are aware of this and take advantage of this and the other resources on campus. Davidson is a place where students don’t learn or use the tools they have, in regard to mental health, until they are in desperate need.”
The student body will ultimately have a large influence on any impending policy changes pertaining to alcohol consumption on campus. Soltany stated the deans have indicated that “based on how the behavior down the hill goes in the next few weeks, the severity of the changes that will be implemented by the committee will change.”
Dean Shaffer contends, “to focus on how this year started off is to miss the bigger picture of all the things that lead up to getting to this place already.” According to the administration, decreasing the number of transports must be accompanied by long lasting cultural changes in terms of how students handle and perceive alcohol. Ringle believes that “if [change] comes from the students there’s a lot more buy-in.”
Soltany wishes to emphasize to the student body: “You are arbiters of change.”