Minnesotans are rightly horrified at recent binge drinking or alcohol-related deaths among young people.
There are too many recent examples. In October, former MSU-Mankato student Amanda Jax drank herself to death on the night of her 21st birthday. In November, MSU-Mankato student Rissa Amen-Reif was hit by a car and killed. Police say alcohol was a factor. On Dec. 14, Winona State University sophomore Jenna Foellmi died of acute alcohol poisoning. In January, former St. Cloud State University student Brian Threet, 20, was found dead in his bedroom. Alcohol is suspected.
Could these deaths have been prevented? One group, Minnesota Campus Compact, has an idea.
Studies show that increased community service can be successful in curbing binge drinking. Campus Compact helps increase student involvement in the community. In 2007, a national addiction and substance abuse group found that students who have higher levels of engaged learning are less likely to binge drink, drink heavily or use drugs.
Campus Compact’s goal is to deepen the connection “between student, institution and community. We know that when someone finds a connection to their community, they find relevance in their learning and a purpose to their life. This means they are more likely to avoid risky behaviors and follow a path to success,” said Catherine Day, Campus Compact’s executive director.
Officials in Mankato are also working on the problem. In February, residents, community leaders and representatives from the school district and MSU-M gathered to discuss the problem and ways to address it.
During this meeting and two that followed it, they decided that the best way to address the problem was through shared responsibility and connection to the community.
“We need to make new societal norms,” said Steve Byrne, director of Alternative Education for Mankato Area Public Schools. “If you have two girls leave a sorority party and they decide to go downtown, scantily clad with their heels, and then they take a wrong turn and one is picking the other up when they get hit by a car, the question is, where were their friends when they left for the bar?”
The problem – and the community reaction – is not new. In 2004 and 2005, two students in Moorhead died after nights of heavy drinking. Moorhead city leaders collaborated with Minnesota State University-Moorhead, Concordia University and the city’s community and technical college to minimize the culture of heavy drinking. Some initiatives involved mandatory classes on the dangers of alcohol, paying overtime for police to patrol student neighborhoods, and altering student perceptions of heavy drinking. Surveys show the rate of heavy drinking among students dropped from 60 percent to 42 percent in four years.
Changing the culture of drinking is almost an insurmountable task. More than 20 percent of adults in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota say they binge drink. In 2007, the Minnesota Department of Education found that among 12th graders, 34 percent of boys and 17 percent of girls said they binge drink.
People want a solution to the monumental problem. “When I speak to groups, people come up to me after I talk and say their mother, their brother, their father – almost no one’s life hasn’t been affected by alcoholism,” Byrne said.
“If you’re out for a night of drinking with some friends and they can’t be trusted that night, you have to say ‘I’ll be trustworthy for you’.”
The message is clear: When students feel a connection to the community and help take responsibility for their friends, the number of tragedies like those in Mankato go down.
The benefits of student involvement are great, but students sometimes need help to see the light. Efforts from Campus Compact along with those in Moorhead and Mankato are a good start.