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Minn. colleges go a year without drinking deaths

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Outside the Triple Rock Social Club
The Triple Rock Social Club in downtown Minneapolis. The Triple Rock is a popular hang out for college students on Tuesday nights when the bar feature two for one drink specials.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Tuesday nights are generally slow at bars. 

But not the Triple Rock Social Club in downtown Minneapolis. 

On a recent Tuesday night, college students from around the area are on hand for some mid-week socializing. 

Among them are five friends, students from the University of Minnesota, Metropolitan State University and Minneapolis Community and Technical College.  They've been lured by a weekly two-for-one drink special. 

It's after 11 p.m.  The friends shiver in front of the bar, huddling together in the cold as the smokers in the group have a cigarette. 

They agree to talk openly about drinking among college students and their own experiences with heavy drinking, if we only use their first names. 

The group is well aware of last school year's spate of alcohol related deaths on Minnesota college campuses.  

Casey, 21, a student at MCTC and Logan, 23, believe young people who die from drinking lack experience with alcohol.

"I think a lot of the university kids who go out and drink too much, they're still at that stage where they're out of high school, they moved into that college stage," Casey said.  

Dr. Joseph Clinton
Dr. Joseph Clinton leads the emergency department at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"And their parents aren't there," added Logan. "So you've got that whole thing thrown in there too. It's the first time a lot of these people are out on their own."

These friends acknowledge they've done it themselves.

Sandy just turned 21 last fall.  She's a student at the University of Minnesota. 

"On my 21st birthday I didn't moderate myself at all," she said.  "It wasn't the best of nights.  It was fun, don't get me wrong."

Her friend Jordan pipes up, adding that she was taken care of when she had too much to drink.   

"You were around people who knew how to handle you and took care of you and you woke up in your bed," Jordan said. 

Jordan, 24, said it's an experience everyone in the group has been through.   

"We've all been in the gutter really drunk before and we were lucky enough to get out of that situation," he said.

It might well be that, luck, and not changes in campus policy, that has kept Minnesota college campuses free from binge drinking deaths this school year. 

In fact nothing has changed at Hennepin County Medical Center since MPR visited the emergency room a year ago to check on visits related to alcohol. 

Richard Davenport
Richard Davenport is president of Minnesota State University, Mankato.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

  "I think people take it lightly and taking it lightly is dangerous," said Dr. Joseph Clinton, who heads up the ER at HCMC in downtown Minneapolis. 

Clinton said binge drinking is a major reason for emergency room visits.  Afflictions range from alcohol poisoning to broken bones due to accidents or drunken brawls. 

Binge drinking is defined as five drinks within two hours for men, and four drinks in two hours for women. 

Clinton said Friday and Saturday nights still bring the most alcohol-related visits to HCMC.   

"Twenty people in the emergency room at one time, primarily because of alcohol," he said.

Clinton said that number can go as high as 50 on big party nights, like New Year's Eve. 

Clinton is concerned about binge drinking no matter the age.  

But it's the 18 to 25-year-old group that has many people worried.  Some surveys have put the number of binge drinkers in that group as high as 50 percent.

Since the deadly school year of 2007-2008, several Minnesota colleges have put anti-binge drinking efforts into high gear. 

In Mankato, where student deaths were linked to alcohol in 2003, 2005 and two separate incidents in 2007, Minnesota State University has taken dramatic steps. 

MSMU students
MSMU students Joshua Gladis, Abby Knott, Ryan Anderson are concerned their college's policy on off campus drinking violations punishes students unfairly.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The school provides more education on the dangers of heavy drinking and offers alcohol-free social alternatives for students on weekends.  

In the most recent and perhaps most controversial move, the college has imposed on-campus penalties for off-campus alcohol violations.

"Whether it's on campus or off campus, the disciplinary actions are the same," according to Mary Dowd in the Mankato State student affairs office. 

If a student is cited for underage drinking at an off-campus bar or party, for example, it results in a $177 dollar fine from Blue Earth County.  Students then face more trouble on campus.  They meet with a counselor, and may have to take a course on drinking.  They get to pay $50 for the privilege.

It's no surprise that some students don't appreciate the effort. 

"No students that I have talked to are for this policy," said Abby Knott, a junior music education major at Mankato State.  Knott is also the off campus representative on the student senate.    

"It's perceived as a double whammy for students that live off campus," Knott said. "Not only do they get the citation from the county, but then they also have to pay a fee on campus and go to a class.  People off campus get hit twice and if you're on campus it's just one time."

The president of Minnesota State University Mankato, Richard Davenport, understands that some students are angry with the policy.  But binge drinking is a serious problem, he said, one that puts the school in a negative light.  

"I do listen to students. I do want to hear their perspectives," Davenport said. "But I have a hard position on this that I'm going to maintain and I think it's the right thing to do.  It's the right thing for the students in my mind, and it's the right thing for the university." 

MSU-Mankato's policy is similar to the one Minnesota State University in Moorhead has had in place for a couple of years.  Two students from the college suffered alcohol related deaths in 2005. 

So far, college officials say their effort to crack down on off campus drinking with on campus punishments has made a real difference.

"The trend for high risk drinking has been going down," according to Carol Grimm, the director of health and wellness at Minnesota State Moorhead. "We've been seeing a gradual decrease in the numbers of students who are high risk drinking." 

Grimm said surveys show the number of students who binge drink has fallen from 41.6 percent in 2007 to 37.4 percent in 2008. 

Grimm hopes that data shows the college crackdown on binge drinking is saving lives. 

"I would like to believe that all the efforts made on all the campuses are making that difference," Grimm said.  "Because there's been a lot of work done to curb high-risk drinking ... but I don't know."

To see map of Minnesota university drinking policies, Click here.