Alumni Outlook Magazine


A MESSAGE with SUBSTANCE

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It began innocently enough, as most such outings do. A group of UW-Stout hockey players and their friends went out for a few hours of socializing on a Friday night last September in downtown Menomonie. They visited a couple of taverns near campus until Friday night became early Saturday morning.
 
About 2 a.m., innocence turned to a question of guilt: Who was responsible for the critical head injury sustained by Bradley L. Simon, a UW-Stout student, and his death several days later in an Eau Claire hospital?
 
In the weeks and months that followed — as two now-former UW-Stout students charged in Simon’s death await trial — more and broader questions were raised by the UW-Stout community and Menomonie residents.
 
Why did it happen? Why has UW-Stout had so many alcohol-related student deaths — seven — in the last three years? Is drinking a bigger problem at UW-Stout than at other campuses in the region? How can such a tragedy be prevented from happening again?
 
The answers are tough to come by in a culture where alcohol is easily accessible and as ingrained in the social atmosphere as cheese and the Green Bay Packers, but UW-Stout officials are determined to do everything they can to prevent another alcohol-related death.
 
In fact, the wheels have been in motion for many years and had been put on the fast track six months before the Simon incident. In March of 2010, after student Michael Dixon was hit and killed in an alcohol-related traffic accident on Broadway Street, Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen decided to take action.
Sorensen issued several directives, which campus officials immediately began implementing, to help curb the negative consequences associated with high risk alcohol use among students:
  • Schedule 20 percent more Friday classes in 2010-2011 in an attempt to curb Thursday night drinking. National research has shown that students who have Friday classes tend to drink less on Thursday nights than those who don’t, Sorensen said.
  • Allow the Dean of Students Office, led by Joan Thomas, to take action on serious student behaviors resulting from high risk drinking in the community but not necessarily on university grounds. These actions reflect recent changes to UW System conduct policies for off-campus behavior. As a result, there has been a significant decline in house parties.
  • Work more closely with Menomonie police to curb the availability of alcohol to underage students.
  • Increase the monitoring of house parties through the Dunn County Alcohol Task Force, which includes UW-Stout police, Menomonie police and the Dunn County Sheriff’s Department.
  • Work with local bar owners to ban drink specials.
  • Send a letter to all incoming freshmen and their families, signed by Sorensen and other officials, detailing UW-Stout’s efforts to keep students safe.
 
UW-Stout students, from left Tyler Martinson-Packer, Andrea Fults and Jake Twaddle, had fun participating in a Smart+Healthy campaign event sponsored by University Housing.
 
After both 2010 student deaths, which put UW-Stout in the media spotlight, Sorensen marshaled as many university resources as possible to deal with the issue. He was criticized by some students and others for allegedly trying to curb their freedoms, but he said that’s not the case.
 
“We are not trying to prohibit the legal use of alcohol. We simply must create a safe environment for our students,” Sorensen said. “Too many students have died or suffered serious injury in the last few years because of alcohol abuse.”
 
Alcohol education efforts on campus go back decades, but with the deaths and Sorensen pushing for changes the message being sent to UW-Stout students and the community is more focused and more urgent than ever.
 
Positive community, university response
The effort to raise awareness about high risk alcohol use hasn’t gone unnoticed in the city and on campus.
  • After Simon’s death the Menomonie City Council began discussing a public intoxication ordinance and unanimously passed it April 18. Anyone who is intoxicated in a public place while creating a nuisance would face a first-offense fine of $200 plus court costs.
  • Since Simon’s death, more students have been regularly attending meetings of the Chancellor’s Coalition on Alcohol and Drugs, and some City Council members voluntarily began attending.
  • The Stout Student Association in October passed a 10-part resolution called “Abuse of Alcohol Awareness: Student Initiatives,” including supporting faculty forums on alcohol in the classrooms. Also as part of that effort, students are producing a video about the effects of alcohol abuse on campus.
 
UW-Stout student helpers gathered last fall after a free pizza event, which was part of the Smart+Healthy campaign sponsored by University Housing.
 
A widespread awareness effort is necessary because students need to hear the message often for it to be effective, even if it’s a professor or coach taking 10 minutes in class or the start of practice to discuss legal and responsible use, said Jacob Bloom, UW-Stout Alcohol and other Drug Program coordinator.
 
“The chancellor has been concerned about this for a long time. Now, the whole campus and community have joined together. People are talking about this issue and looking at what they can personally do to reduce the negative consequences associated with high risk use,” Bloom said.
 
“Everyone is committed. It’s a shared message: If you’re putting yourself at risk, we’re doing to do something about it. We’re at a tipping point.”
Thomas, the dean of students, says UW-Stout’s efforts revolve around accepting the growing number of students who choose not to drink and a three-pronged approach — education, engagement and enforcement.
 
“For too many students, the negative consequences of alcohol can impact their educational, academic and personal goals by interfering with the ability to travel abroad, get a job in their chosen field or even pass a background check,” Thomas said.
 
“The overall plan includes a model where students are engaged in their academic work and have opportunities to participate in a variety of social, service learning, professional and recreational activities, such that alcohol isn’t the focus.”
 
 
UW-Stout students Branden Michelkamp and Emily Riesenweber promote University Housing’s Smart+Healthy campaign.
Enforcement sends a “strong message that participating in behavior that is dangerous or harmful to self or others will not be acceptable and also serves as an effective deterrent. It really isn’t as much about drinking alcohol as it is about the increase we’ve seen in high risk drinking that results in tragic or serious life-altering consequences for students,” Thomas said.
 
The message starts with education
Students who head off to college and get their first taste of independence don’t have to look far to see alcohol is all around them in the form of bars, liquor stores and house parties. It’s a nationwide problem, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
 
The NIAAA estimates that more than 1,800 college students die each year in alcohol-related events, mostly traffic accidents. Another 600,000 are injured and 97,000 suffer from sexual assaults related to alcohol use each year.
 
In Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest, however, alcohol and the problems it causes are much more pervasive than other areas of the country because of the culture, Bloom said. More than 50 establishments, for example, are licensed to sell alcohol in Menomonie, he said.
 
“That’s a high number per capita. We have to be more aggressive because our alcohol roots are so much deeper (in Wisconsin),” said Bloom, a Menomonie native and UW-La Crosse graduate.
 
Education is where UW-Stout comes in. From the time freshmen set foot on campus, they are informed many times and in many ways about the potential pitfalls of drinking alcohol, although many of them already have set patterns of use, Bloom said.
 
 
Underage students are told how expensive it can be to get caught drinking alcohol ($263.50 first offense), selling it ($767.50 first offense) and how those violations stay on their court records for five years. When a student violates the law, their parents now automatically get a call from University Housing, according to Thomas.
 
Residence hall directors — University Housing has an alcohol committee — discuss the issue with new students, explaining the civil, housing and university repercussions if they’re caught drinking.
 
The Dunn County legal system has developed an effective intervention and referral program for young people who have violated state drinking age laws. When police write a citation, they include a mandatory court appearance.
On that date, a UW-Stout educator provides a confidential orientation that covers: age laws, court proceedings, and optional alcohol education/assessment opportunities. Judges offer a reduction in fines and waive the loss of driver’s license penalty for those who agree to participate in the Alcohol Awareness Program.
 
University Housing has used poster campaigns to reach students in residence halls, including in bathrooms. Stop@Buzzed sends the message that students who are old enough to drink need to know when to stop — at roughly .05 or .06 blood alcohol level — before they are intoxicated and put themselves and others at risk.
 
Another poster campaign, Smart+Healthy, includes alcohol messages as part of an overall health education effort. The series has such messages as “M is for moderation: 75 percent of Stout students count their drinks” or “R is for responsibility: 70 percent of Stout students don’t drink and drive.”
 
The Smarth+Healthy posters were designed by Jeff Kuglitsch, who graduated in May 2010 from UW-Stout. Kuglitsch won an award from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis for the designs.
 
Students often drink just to fit in socially, but once they’ve made a drinking mistake and have gone through the remedial programs UW-Stout offers, they seem to get it out of their system. “We don’t have a lot of repeat offenders,” said Amy McGovern, assistant director of University Housing.
 
The number of alcohol-related problems at UW-Stout is comparable to those at other UW System campuses, according to system studies, Bloom said. As statistics from the posters suggest, most students at UW-Stout who use alcohol do so in moderation and are smart about it.
 
“The majority of students are now using at a healthy level,” Bloom said.
The message is clear: UW-Stout is telling students of legal age to use common sense if they choose to drink alcohol. “We’re not saying don’t have fun, but don’t hurt yourself or others,” Bloom said.
 
What’s new is decades old
The issue of controlling high risk alcohol use among UW-Stout students isn’t new, according to Kevin Thorie, who recently retired as UW-Stout’s archivist.
 
In the 1950s, alcohol contributed to several fatal car accidents, suicides and a few cases of students dying from exposure after leaving house parties and social gatherings. One intoxicated student was murdered after a fight behind a downtown bar, Thorie said.
 
In the 1970s, some students began a homecoming tradition of “getting drunk and then leaving the bars at closing to form up and attempt to march north on Broadway to close the freeway,” Thorie said. That tradition no longer continues.
 
In one past attempt to curb the problem of alcohol abuse, the university began selling beer at the student center in an attempt to keep students from drinking and driving. “There were mixed reviews towards the success of this approach,” Thorie said.
 
In the 1980s, UW-Stout participated in the University of Wisconsin System Advisory Committee on Alcohol Education. Similar programs aimed at limiting drinking on campus were started.
 
Historically, students also have been proactive — similar to the SSA’s recent resolutions — with regard to alcohol abuse. In 1981, the group Students Understanding Drinking Sensibly (SUDS) was formed. SUDS attempted to provide alternative activities to drinking as well as to encourage moderation.  
 
Five years later Bash on the Grass was sponsored by the SSA during homecoming. It was created to provide a “nonalcohol event as a positive alternative to traditional revelry.”

Chancellor committed to change
Now in his 23rd year at UW-Stout, Sorensen has seen too many alcohol-related deaths of UW-Stout students. He’s had enough.
 
“I firmly believe that we have a moral and an ethical obligation to pursue all reasonable avenues to address alcohol abuse by our students. Many of our students do make responsible choices regarding the use of alcohol, which our Smart+Healthy social norms campaign encourages. But too many of our students die, suffer serious injury or experience consequences that will forever affect their lives and the lives of others — all because of alcohol abuse.
 
“I am asking the entire UW-Stout community to join with me in reducing high risk drinking that is ruining the bright futures of too many of our students,” Sorensen said.
 
For more information, go to www.collegedrinkingprevention.com