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New drinking laws prompt civic action by college students

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Brother Willie's pub
Students from the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University who are 21 and older enjoy happy hour at Brother Willie's pub on the St. John's campus. The two-level pub was also the site of a recent informational meeting regarding new drinking laws in the city of St. Joseph. Students packed the pub for the meeting.
Image courtesy of Will Moore

College students in central Minnesota are learning a few life lessons on how government works. The subject at hand -- three new ordinances designed to control underage drinking in the city of St. Joseph.  

Students were caught off guard by the new rules and now they're getting more active in city lawmaking. Will Moore, a graduating senior at St. John's University, has the latest installment in our Young Reporters series.

By Will Moore

St. Joseph is home to the College of St. Benedict, with a concentrated population of students from St. Ben's and St. John's University.  In fact, college students make up more than a third of St. Joseph's population -- 2,380 students live in the city, which has a total population of 6,534, according to census figures.

The three new laws went into effect in March. The first requires landlords to sign a keg permit acknowledging beer will be served on their property.  The second allows police to charge people who are drunk with a misdemeanor if they're uncooperative with police. 

The third ordinance holds hosts responsible if any minors drink alcohol at their social gatherings.  The social host law is getting a lot of attention from students 21 and over because they fear the repercussions of socializing with mixed-age groups.  

Council meeting
Students from the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University packed the St. Joseph City Council chamber at an April meeting. They were there to show support four fellow students who criticized new drinking laws in the city.
Photo courtesy of Reed Osell/ The Record

Shane Schiavo, 22, is a senior at St. John's. Schiavo is originally from Marshall, but now lives in St. Joseph, and he believes the punishment for violating the social host ordinance is too severe. 

"One silly mistake and you get a misdemeanor, mandatory court appearance, possible jail time, up to a $1,000 fine that sticks with you for the rest of your life and can haunt you in your job search, can haunt you in anything," he said. "The punishment does not match the crime."

Neither city nor school officials informed students about the new ordinances until after they were passed in January.  After several weeks of growing confusion, students organized a special meeting to get more information. 

A meeting of the school's "Politics and a Pint" series focused solely on this topic.  The series, which is hosted by students and focuses on a variety of issues, allows alcohol to be consumed by attendees who are 21 and older.  Political science professor Matt Lindstrom moderates the series.

Happy hour
Students from the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University who are 21 and older enjoy happy hour at Brother Willie's pub on the St. John's campus. The two-level pub was also the site of a recent informational meeting regarding new drinking laws in the city of St. Joseph. Students packed the pub for the meeting.
Image courtesy of Will Moore

"We're going to hear all about kegs and social host ordinance, what that means, and also -- pay attention -- what it doesn't mean.  And that's, I think, just as important," said Lindstrom.  

A few hundred students packed Brother Willie's, the on-campus pub at St. John's, to hear public officials speak, including the mayor of St. Joseph, a council member and Police Chief Pete Jansky.  Jansky told the students they're not the only ones concerned about the social host ordinance.

"Many of the cities, especially the ones with college communities in them, have the social host (law)," Jansky said. "We're the community that's probably one of the late bloomers coming through. Why did we do that? Because we wanted to do it right."

The Twin Cities suburb of Chaska passed the state's first social host ordinance in 2007, after a 19-year-old man who had attended a party in the city froze to death walking home while drunk.  Now, more than 80 Minnesota cities and towns have passed some sort of social host law, and they cover more than half the state's population.

Violation rates
Violation rates in St. Cloud since the social host ordinance went into effect in August of 2010.
MPR News graphic | data from St. Cloud city attorney

St. Cloud is one of those cities, and is home to a large student population from two schools in the area.  Since St. Cloud's law went into effect three years ago, the city has seen a decline in public drunkenness, noise violations, and alcohol-related emergency room admissions. 

Noise violations  dropped from 418 in 2008 to 188 last year, according to data provided by St. Cloud City Attorney Matthew Staehling.   Violations for disruptive intoxication declined from 14 in 2010 to three last year.  And social host violations dropped from 90 three years ago to 30 last year.  St. Joseph used St. Cloud's law as a template for its own.  

Chief Jansky said St. John's and St. Ben's have had their own alcohol-related problems.  

"Every year that I've been here for the past 12 years we've come very close to losing students because of alcohol poisoning.  I think I can unequivocally say all of them were underage," said Jansky.

Even so, some students are not convinced the ordinance will stop underage drinking.

"I don't know of anyone who's underage who is going to stop drinking because of these ordinances," said Katie Zuroski, 20, a junior at St. Ben's. "I think that they're going to be sneakier about it and maybe more cautious, but I don't think that's going to change anything."

Many other students are using social media to call for better communication and more student involvement in city and school decisions.  A Facebook group set up for that purpose attracted more than 1,000 members in its first three days.  Even the mayor of St. Joseph joined the online discussion. 

Shane Schiavo and Sam Dittberner
St. John's University seniors Shane Schiavo (left) and Sam Dittberner express their frustrations with the new social host ordinance during a meeting of the St. Joseph City Council. Violating the ordinance is a misdemeanor. Students want that reduced.
Photo courtesy of Reed Osell/ The Record

Since then, several students have been meeting with city officials regularly to voice their opinions. Senior Jenny Kunkel, 22, of Roseville, says the students who live in St. Joseph are ready to get involved if they're shown how.

"To even consider going to a council meeting ... that would be talking about school levies for the middle school or something -- that wouldn't be something I'd instinctively go to," she said. "But if they said, 'Hey, we're talking about something that's going to influence you,' I think people would show up."

And they did.  

Despite a freak spring snowstorm, dozens of students attended a St. Joseph City Council meeting on April 18, where lawmakers asked them to present ideas.  That meeting had a larger student presence than Police Chief Jansky said he'd seen in his decade as chief, and he thinks it's a good sign that students are getting more involved. 

Students say they hope to reduce the punishment for social hosts. They're working with St. Joseph to put city news in the campus newspaper.  And they want to create a program where students work directly with the council so they're more aware of city issues that could have an impact on them.