UT targets alcohol trouble

A new course requirement strives to change the school's "culture of drinking."

By JUSTIN GEORGE, Times Staff Writer
Published September 3, 2007

TAMPA - University of Tampa freshmen arrived on campus this semester to a new course requirement aimed at curbing underage and binge drinking.

From 2000 to 2005, the university reported 2,191 alcohol-related incidents. That outnumbered those at the University of Florida, which has eight times as many students. UT's numbers were the highest among all Florida universities, according to a 2006 Florida Senate report on college campus underage drinking and alcohol abuse.

Gina Firth, associate dean of students, speculated that the university reports violations more thoroughly than other schools.

"But is there a culture of drinking? Yes," Firth said.

"But is it as large as it was three years ago? No."

Last year, she said, UT saw a 32 percent decrease in alcohol violations compared with the previous year, down from 607 to 415. In 2005 and 2006, police cited five minors for possessing alcohol and one adult for selling alcohol to a minor, spokeswoman Andrea Davis said.

Many new programs and policies are behind the decrease, she said, and she expects the trend to continue since the school bolstered its antidrinking programs and regulations this fall.

At UT, a downtown school minutes from bar-laden Ybor City and Hyde Park, four of the school's nine dormitories allow alcohol for students of legal age. It's also permitted during private parties at the Rathskeller, a campus cafe, a university spokesman said.

The school's drinking reputation pales in comparison with the University of Florida, which the Princeton Review ranked the nation's fourth-best party school. At the Gainesville campus, administrators cracked down in 2005, after five students died within 18 months in alcohol-related incidents.

The last UT alcohol-related death came in 1998 when a student attempted to swim the Hillsborough River at 2 a.m. after drinking, officials said.

In the Senate report, UT ranked second behind UF in the number of alcohol-related hospitalizations over the past five years: 51 to UF's 186.

This year, all 1,400 first-year students will be required to go through AlcoholEdu, a four-hour, multiphase course now required of freshmen at about 200 universities, including UF.

The course teaches students about health risks and dangers associated with alcohol use and tailors its messages by gender and experience. Nondrinkers take a course different from the one offered to those who admit to drinking, Firth said.

Failed tests require retakes.

Freshmen who refuse to participate are docked grades in their Gateways class, a UT program that helps first-year students acclimate to college. Students who don't take the class and are cited for alcohol violations will face stiffer university penalties, Firth said.

"If you don't take the course and it's not on record the first time you get an alcohol violation, it's counted as your second offense," said Shanine Albino, 18, a freshman from Land O'Lakes.

Students have until early September to complete the first phase of the program. Some said they didn't mind, but others found the requirement stiff.

"I'm not looking forward to it," said Brittany Carlson, 18, of Massachusetts on Aug. 24. "It's four hours long and classes start Monday."

Students say they don't know whether the program will work, but administrators are convinced.

An independent analysis in 2003-04 showed students who completed AlcoholEdu reported 50 percent fewer negative health, social and academic consequences related to drinking than other students, according to Outside the Classroom, the Needham, Mass., company that administers the program.

"It's an innovative course," said Firth, who ran the University of Notre Dame's alcohol and drug education programs for 14 years before joining UT last year.

Sophomores and upperclassmen who commit their first alcohol violations this year will also be required to take the course. A new policy also allows campus security to cite intoxicated students. Previously, only students in possession of alcohol could be cited. All students who violate the alcohol policy will be assessed by a substance abuse counselor to see if treatment should be recommended.

"We are no different than any other college campus," Firth said. "We are struggling with high-risk drinking, but we're going to continue to make progress."

Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

College drinking nationwide

43.4 Percent of college freshmen who drank beer occasionally in 2005.

1,700 Approximate annual number of college students between the ages of 18 and 24 who die from alcohol-related injuries including vehicle crashes.

599,000 Approximate number of students ages 18 to 24 who are injured while under the influence of alcohol each year.

696,000 Approximate number of students ages 18 to 24 who are assaulted by another student who has been drinking each year.

97,000+ Number of students ages 18 to 24 who are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape each year.

400,000 Approximate number of students ages 18 to 24 who had unprotected sex each year; more than 100,000 students the same age were too intoxicated to know if they consented to sex.

2.1-million Approximate number of students ages 18 to 24 who drove under the influence of alcohol in 2005.

Source: "Underage Drinking and Alcohol Abuse on University and College Campuses," November 2006, prepared for the Florida Senate by the Committee on Regulated Industries.