Most Canadian, American and even European universities are grappling with the problem of binge drinking by students. Frequently such binges lead to vandalism, violence, and sexual assaults.
The numbers are sobering. A survey of Canadian campuses in 2004 by the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, found 32 per cent of undergraduates drink at a dangerous level.
AdvertisementTen per cent of those surveyed reported having experienced alcohol-related assault, 9.8 per cent reported alcohol-related sexual harassment and 14.1 per cent reported having unplanned sexual relations because of being inebriated.
"It's a very high percentage," says Bob Mann, senior scientist with CAMH. "If you look at certain hazardous behaviour, the rate of students drinking and driving has declined, but heavy drinking is in itself hazardous."
Most students don't take their first drink at university. A 2007 CAMH study found that 83 per cent of high school students reported having drunk alcohol before 18 years of age, while 19 per cent said they drank at a hazardous level.
Perhaps the greatest fear of educators is that a student will die either from alcohol poisoning, choking on their own vomit or from violence associated with drinking.
While Canadian universities are reluctant to divulge whether any students have died from binge drinking, a number of universities in the U.S. have recorded deaths as a result of alcohol poisoning.
After a student died on its campus, the University of Iowa tried to curb student drinking on Thursday nights with a plan to schedule more classes on Fridays.
What most Canadian universities have to contend with is drunken students fighting, throwing up and urinating on or vandalizing nearby residents' properties.
Meredith Kuipers, a Queen's graduate student who lives on the infamous Aberdeen Street, says, "There's always broken glass here. In my front yard right now, there are 50 plastic mini-shot glasses smashed all over the lawn.
"If I look out my front window on a Friday evening, I'll likely see a guy urinating on our house. It's disgusting. It's loud Thursday through Saturday with people yelling profanities late at night."
By putting its annual homecoming celebration on hold for two years, Queen's University has highlighted the fact that student drinking is simply too serious a problem to ignore.
Principal Tom Williams blames the cancellation on the unofficial party on Aberdeen Street that coincides with the homecoming. It's the one that draws thousands of high school and university students from across the country to Kingston to party into the wee hours of the morning, often with destructive consequences.
In 2005, drunken students overturned a car and set it ablaze. Williams says this year's partying during the last weekend in September resulted in an unprecedented number of police charges, arrests, violent incidents and injuries, Georgie Binks reported for CBC.
Near McMaster University in Hamilton, residents have been up in arms for years over drunken parties and student rowdyism that spills over into quiet residential neighbourhoods. In London, police became so concerned with student drinking at the University of Western Ontario and Fanshawe College that they created Project LEARN to clamp down on rowdies.
Between the end of August and October of 2008, London-area police laid more than 1,400 Provincial Offence Act charges and bylaw offences as well as 130 Criminal Code charges against young drinkers. In total, 1,100 of those charged were students and 400 were non-students.
Susan Grindod, associate vice-president for housing and auxiliary services at The University of Western Ontario (UWO), says, "Disposable income plays a role here. Students have more money to drink.
"I also don't see a strong parental reaction to underage drinking. Parents deal with it in high school but some actually bring alcohol to school for underage kids. They don't seem to fear alcohol the way they do drugs."
It doesn't help that movies like Animal House have glamorized excessive drinking and the behaviour that goes with it. However, the allure of that behaviour may be changing as the makeup of the student body changes.
Says Grindod, "With the diversity of students of different cultures and backgrounds, there are a lot of students who don't drink."
As students mature, binge drinking decreases, most educators say. Mike, a 24-year-old student at Dalhousie in Halifax, says, "I don't drink a lot because I don't like to end my nights getting sick. But there is a huge emphasis these days on pre-drinking before students go out.
"If you're drinking a lot, it gets too expensive to buy all your drinks in the bars."
One problem, addiction experts say, has been that parents and educators have spent so much time warning about the perils of drinking and driving that they've not addressed the perils of simply drinking.
That's something universities like Dalhousie are trying to do now. Student Union president Courtney Larkin says. "When students first come into residence during orientation week, we're completely dry. There is no liquor served at our events. We really want to push that you don't need to drink to have a good time."
The University of Alberta has instituted a peer health education program that covers "How to Party and Live to Tell About It."
Grindod says Western has an alcohol behaviour contract for students who come to their attention because of drinking. Queen's has a detailed alcohol policy and operates a detox centre in the basement of one of the residences called the Campus Observation Room.
Mann says one of the causes of drinking may be increased levels of stress among students. But he also points out that, "Excessive drinking can get in the way of them getting an education and achieving their goals."
Whether that message will get through to students is another matter. Already on Facebook.com, some students are planning their own homecoming celebration at Queen's for next fall.