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Study of colleges identifies gaps in efforts to enforce alcohol laws

Photo courtesy Flickr user soursob

A new study from the University of Minnesota reveals campus security law enforcement officials are not likely to issue citations to students for alcohol-law violations.

The study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research asked directors of campus police and security from 343 colleges across the nation to complete a survey regarding their usual practices following serious, underage, and less-serious alcohol incidents on and off campus.

Toben F. Nelson, Sc.D., associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota and a co-author of the study says this study is the first to examine enforcement actions for alcohol laws by campus police and security agencies in a large, nationally representative sample of colleges.

“We found that campus security or law enforcement officials were not likely to issue citations for violations of alcohol laws. More commonly, students were referred for discipline or sanctions to other officials within the university, rather than in formal courts. Students were generally not referred to the campus health center for alcohol screening or intervention, and contact with parents by campus security or law enforcement typically did not occur,” said Nelson.

As compared to like aged peers not enrolled in college, college students are more likely to engage in binge drinking, a risky form of excessive alcohol use that can result in a wide range of negative health and social consequences, including  academic problems, sexual assault, violence and aggression, serious injuries, driving while intoxicated and traffic fatalities. Attending college has fostered an unfortunate perception that binge drinking is an expected, and a normal part of being a student.

“We think the factors that contribute to higher rates of binge drinking and related problems among college versus non-college students and at heavy versus lighter drinking colleges are largely environmental,” said Nelson. “These factors include easy availability of alcohol through high density of commercial alcohol outlets such as bars and liquor stores, fraternity houses and college-rental houses that serve alcohol at parties – particularly to underage students, low-cost alcohol due to cheap drink specials and low state and local taxes on alcohol, and heavy marketing of alcohol via billboards and other public signage and student-targeted publications such as alternative newspapers.”

Nelson and his colleagues noted the lack of citations was most concerning at small, private colleges. These colleges may not have the collective resources of large enough police/security staff to write citations.

“It is also possible that students who attend college in small towns make a larger, or more noticeable, impact on their surroundings as a consequence of their drinking and that these consequences can be more easily attributed to college-student drinking in smaller compared to larger towns.  In smaller towns the community-based enforcement services may not be sufficient to address the issues related to student drinking,” said Nelson.

Although increasing enforcement could deter students from drinking as heavily, Darin J. Erickson Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Public Health and co-investigator of the project, says it’s not the only solution.

“It is important to note that enforcement is one important part of the larger system of alcohol prevention and treatment on college campuses,” said Erickson. “The longstanding elevated alcohol use among college students, and associated problems, dictate that there is not one way to solve this issue. Campus officials representing education, policy, treatment and intervention, and enforcement need to work together to ensure that all of these pieces of the system are available.”

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