Dear Muhlenberg Parents:
I write to you today to ask your help in responding to a threat not just to your children's health, but to their lives.
It is no secret that alcohol use is a common occurrence on our nation's college campuses. This is hardly surprising when we learn that approximately 80% of high school seniors have consumed alcohol before going away to college. Of course there is a long tradition of college drinking, immortalized in countless movies, drinking songs, and traditions. Many of us have memories of college keg parties. Many may think that, in the realm of problems on college campuses, a little student drinking is pretty low on the list. It's important for you to know, however, that things have changed. Binge drinking, drinking to get drunk, drinking to the point of blacking out, drinking to the point that students must be rushed to emergency rooms because alcohol abuse threatens their lives - are behaviors that have now become an epidemic on many campuses. With increasing frequency, students seem to be consuming large quantities of hard liquor in a short amount of time and in non-social situations, with the apparent objective of getting drunk as quickly as possible.
Muhlenberg has, until recently, been spared the worst of these excesses. Indeed, as a community, we are still in better shape than most colleges when it comes to student behavior. But we must face the facts: the plague of binge drinking has arrived on our campus. By this time a year ago, seven students had been taken to local emergency rooms for excess consumption of alcohol. This year, so far, twenty-six students have been transported to the hospital. Twice in the last three weeks our Dean of Students has stood at an unconscious student's hospital bedside and heard a doctor report that, had not friends brought the student's condition to someone's attention, that student would have died.
This is a community problem, and we must respond to it as a community. So far we have been fortunate: through their vigilance and caring, our students have saved the lives of their classmates by notifying authorities when they saw friends in trouble. But we may not always be so lucky.
In the remainder of this letter let me summarize what we have been doing, what we propose to do, and, most important, the partnership role I hope you, as parents, will play in addressing this issue.
- 1. What We Have Already Done
Although Muhlenberg has not seen the level of alcohol-related problems that have characterized many other campuses, we already have substantial policies and programs in place. For those who have not achieved the legal drinking age in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the sole responsible choice is abstention. The college takes prompt and firm action through its judicial system and/or the local law enforcement process to set underage student drinkers back on the path of responsible behavior. In addition to our judicial system, however, we try very hard to educate our students about the dangers of alcohol abuse. The educational process commences with freshman orientation and continues with periodic programs throughout the academic year. In crafting these programs and fine-tuning our policies, our staff has consulted with student leaders and worked closely with substance abuse experts, representatives of law enforcement, medical experts and local members of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board .
- 2. What We Propose to Do
Within the next few weeks I will be convening a campus task force on alcohol abuse to refine our understanding of this new dimension to the alcohol problem on our campus, to bring all possible campus expertise to bear on the issue, and to consider further refinements to campus policies. In the meantime, the College's senior staff will consult with student leaders about immediate ways we can discourage irresponsible drinking. It is too much to hope that such measures will be welcomed by all students, but we can hope they will start us in the right direction. Finally, we will be working to organize new educational outreach efforts, collectively described as "days of dialogue" on alcohol, harnessing all the resources at our disposal to focus student attention on this problem, and to facilitate substantive conversations about responsible behavior. This dialogue should include chaplains, coaches, professors, staff members, student leaders, and others who have students' confidence and who care deeply about their welfare.
- 3. Your Role
I ask you to have a frank discussion about alcohol with your children. As we approach Spring Break, it is worth noting that many students travel to locations that are known to promote excess consumption of alcohol. Please talk with your sons and daughters before they undertake such trips. As the father of two college students, I know such conversations can be awkward and difficult. But I also know that your children (though they may not admit it) care deeply about your opinion of them, that they crave your advice, that they want you to have high expectations for them, and that they want to meet those expectations. If you are very clear about your standards and expectations related to alcohol use, you will have a powerful impact. You may save the life of your own child, or someone else's. These conversations should stress not only responsible behavior in your sons' and daughters' own choices about alcohol, but their responsibility to look out for friends and classmates who may be engaging in dangerous behavior, to exert peer pressure in favor of moderation, and to call for help when a friend seems to have over imbibed.
I am not so naïve as to believe we can eliminate alcohol abuse. But if we work together, we can greatly reduce the threat to our students.
Peyton R. Helm