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The Delaware News Journal

For some, college kicks off in wild style

By Mike Chalmers and Pat Walters
September 3, 2006

Arriving at the University of Delaware last weekend, one freshman girl had quite a full first day.

She got drunk and had a sexual encounter with a student who, as he was carrying her down the street, dropped her, cutting her head open, said Newark police spokesman Lt. Thomas Le Min.

"So six hours here she had already gotten drunk, gotten busy and gotten dropped on her head," Le Min said. "I think her parents were still here. That's got to be a record or something."

While extreme, her experience is hardly isolated.

Fall classes began last week for UD's nearly 20,000 students, throwing the community into one of the rowdiest - and most dangerous - times of the year. Before classes even started, UD had cited seven students with alcohol violations and handled four cases of alcohol poisoning.

"The first two weeks are just like all hell breaks loose," said Jonathan Tilton, a 24-year-old Newark resident. "Everyone goes out and drinks, pretty much every night."

The phenomenon extends to nearly every college campus nationwide, said Richard Yoast, who directs the American Medical Association's Office of Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Abuse Prevention. He worked with UD on A Matter of Degree, a medical association program designed to reduce binge drinking at 10 college campuses. Freshmen and sophomores are often the biggest binge drinkers, Yoast and others said.

"There's a lot more free time, they haven't gotten involved in their courses yet," Yoast said. "For returning students, they're getting back together with their friends. For freshmen, they're getting used to their new surroundings."

Witness the scene as Andrew Whiting and friends were welcoming themselves back to college last week.

With a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor duct-taped to one hand and a bottle of red wine to the other, Whiting and two dozen friends gathered last Thursday night at a house on Academy Street to play "Edward 40-Hands." The sole objective of the game: Get drunk fast. And it looked like everyone was winning.

"Everyone's excited to get back" to school, said Whiting, a 21-year-old senior geography major.

"Freshmen are so crazy. They're great because they're just, like, 'Woohoo, no Mom and Dad!' " he said. "They're still, like, pushing the boundaries, and we're not anymore. We know not to go there, but they don't."

As the school year began, UD police would not comment on initial reports that drugs or alcohol might have been involved in the death of Laura Shanks, a 20-year-old sophomore from Yardley, Pa. She was found unconscious Monday morning in her first-floor dorm room in Harrington Hall A.

The state Medical Examiner's Office conducted an autopsy and toxicology tests, but the results of that report will not be made public if Shanks' death is found to be of natural causes or accidental. Police have said no foul play is suspected.

Newark and UD police officials said they try to squelch as much misbehavior as possible early in the year by stepping up patrols and enforcement of alcohol violations.

"If you hammer them at the beginning, it really makes the rest of the semester very pleasant," Le Min said.

Education is a start

The first weeks, though, aren't the only time for bacchanalia, Yoast said. Halloween, big football games, St. Patrick's Day and graduation all provide excuses for binge drinking, he said.

"Homecoming is probably one of the highest drinking times," Yoast said. "It's probably lowest before finals, but it goes up for individual students when they complete their finals."

James Overton, Delaware State University's director of public safety, said the only time he sees an uptick in the number of drunken students is in the interim between the end of classes and the beginning of final exams. But for the most part, he said DSU students don't party.

"We'll have kids that get together in their rooms," he said. "But I've never walked in and found a keg or tons of cases of beer."

UD has fought serious alcohol problems over the years.

Studies in the 1990s found that almost two-thirds of UD students were binge drinkers, defined as having five or more drinks in a row. The school has landed $2.3 million in foundation and government grant money to fight binge drinking over the past decade. Officials also have kicked out several fraternities for alcohol violations.

In 2004, 18-year-old freshman Rachel Payne was struck by a train and killed while walking home from a party about two weeks after classes began. Her blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit.

To help combat binge drinking, UD started this fall requiring all first-year students to complete a three-hour online education course called AlcoholEdu. About 500 other colleges nationwide also use the program, which focuses on students' attitudes about drinking and the effect it has on their friends and their academics.

"In the past two weeks," the course asks, "how often did you chug alcohol? Play drinking games? How often did you attend class drunk?"

"They come back to the residence hall, and they're loud, they're vomiting, they're waking people up, they bother friends who have to baby-sit them, or they overdose," said Tracy Downs, program director of UD's Center for Counseling and Student Development.

Students who do not complete the course and pass a test on what they learned won't be allowed to register for spring semester classes, Downs said.

The course is designed for students with a wide range of previous alcohol experiences, said Cathy Skelley, UD's assistant director for residence life.

"Very few of them come to us with a clean slate," Skelley said. "They used alcohol before, but not with the freedom that they have when they get here. They think they know what they're doing, but a lot of them had a lot more parental restrictions."

Yoast said online courses get students to think more about their drinking, but the effort needs to be combined with enforcement and alternative activities to be effective, he said.

"These kids have already had education up the wazoo for several years," he said. "It's all of that together that works."

In July, UD police started assigning extra officers to work on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, when campus partying is most intense, said James Flatley, UD's director of public safety.

Community feels impact

John Kalmer knows those are the most raucous times, too. He has lived at the corner of Academy Street and Kells Avenue for almost 25 years. He loves it from June through August and tolerates it the rest of the year. The first month of the fall semester can be the worst.

"It goes from an incredibly quiet, pristine old neighborhood to something different," Kalmer said. "The liquor is flowing, the parties are happening. From Thursday through Saturday, between 9 in the evening and 4 in the morning, you can always count on yelling of profanity, squealing tires, lots of traffic."

Kalmer said 95 percent of the students are well behaved, but the other 5 percent have a huge impact on the neighborhood.

"For the most part, they think it's their city, and they act as they would away from their parents, which involves all the behavior you'd like to teach your kids not to do," he said.

Mike Dellamonica, one of the owners of Margherita's Pizza on Main Street, said the beginning of the year is busy with partiers, but the end of the year is even worse. By then, he said, students have found the best parties, and, more importantly, his shop. By April the small pizzeria is packed every night of the week.

"For some of them, it's their last year and they go crazy," Dellamonica said. "At the end, I see the good stuff."

     
 
     
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