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UMass discipline cases outpacing last year; survey shows binge drinking down, off-campus drinking rising

Even as binge drinking continues to decline among University of Massachusetts students, more undergraduates are heading to off-campus parties to consume alcohol and the number of students referred to the dean of students for disciplinary action is far outpacing last year’s figure.

A report released in last week by the university shows that for the fall semester between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30, 431 students were reported to the dean for 268 off-campus incidents, as opposed to 652 for June 1, 2011, to May 31, 2012. Those students were involved in 459 off-campus incidents.

Of the fall semester cases processed, 276, or 83 percent, received some form of sanction. Sanctions can range from university reprimand, which is almost always coupled with required participation in the Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS) program, which costs students $100, to suspensions and expulsion.

Three students were suspended and no students were expelled, but 98 cases remain in process. UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said it is possible many of these cases are the most challenging to resolve quickly.

“A number of these could result in significant sanctions, including suspension or expulsion,” Blaguszewski said. He more cases typically come before the dean of students in the fall than in the spring.

Meanwhile, results from an online survey of 680 students, compiled by Assistant Dean of Students Sally Linowski, show that efforts to combat binge drinking, usually defined as consuming enough alcohol in a two-hour period to get legally intoxicated, are having a positive effect on behavior.

Underage binge drinking has gone from 64 percent among students who responded to a 2005 substance abuse survey conducted by the university to 47 percent of the students who took the survey this year.

“The fact we’re seeing decreases in binge drinking is great,” said Linowski, the former associate director of University Health Services, who presented statistics recently to the Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce High-Risk Drinking. “What it also means is there is less tolerance for bad behavior.”

In the survey, 66 percent of students reported bringing their own alcohol to off-campus parties, up from 50 percent a year earlier, and 31 percent say they paid admission to get into an off-campus party where alcohol is served, up from 15 percent last year.

Linowski said these figures concern the coalition.

Amherst Police Capt. Christopher Pronovost said the statistics jibe with the department’s experience.

“This reflects what we’re seeing — that there are more problems off campus,” Pronovost said.

Pronovost cited the detection of an illegal underground bar at 11 Phillips St. that led to 14 students being summoned to court in October for operating it. Pronovost said police will try to identify more of these during the spring semester. “We will be vigorously targeting illegal bars off campus.”

Pronovost said he also expects cooperation from UMass police in dealing with students walking from campus with backpacks filled with alcohol.

The “Surveys of Substance Abuse” began in 2005. This year, 2,500 students were invited to participate, with 680, or 27 percent, responding, Linowski said. More than 65 percent of those responding were women. The makeup of the respondent pool was consistent with the racial demographics of the campus, she said.

Linowski said the administration’s efforts to combat binge drinking have meant that parties, disturbances and other alcohol-fueled incidents are becoming more noticeable.

“The trends are positive. We’re moving in the directions we want to move,” she said.

In the seven years since the survey began, she said, the number of students who are considered frequent binge drinkers, often those who are hosting parties and trying to perpetuate the “ZooMass” image, has dropped from 33 percent to 14 percent.

Over seven years the surveys show a 20 percent decrease in heavy episodic drinking among students. Heavy episodic drinking is defined as five drinks in a row for men or four drinks in a row for women over a two-hour period within the preceding two weeks.

The most recent survey shows that 72 percent of students are engaging in what is known as “pregaming,” the practice of consuming alcoholic beverages in dormitory rooms before heading to an off-campus party, concert or other event.

For men, the average is four drinks, often beer. For women the average is three drinks, frequently flavored rums and vodkas that Linowski said are more palatable for shots. The blood alcohol content among female students who engage in “pregaming” is estimated to be 0.062. Among male students it is estimated to be 0.057, Linowski said.

That is below the level for legal intoxication, she said.

Among survey respondents, 71 percent said they consume alcohol twice a week or less. The average number of drinks students reported consuming in the week before the most recent survey was nine, Linowski said, compared to 14 drinks a week two years ago.

Of those surveyed, 64 percent said the social atmosphere at UMass promotes a culture of excessive drinking. That figure was 86 percent in the first survey in 2005.

Also down is the number of students who say their sleep has been interrupted by drinking-related disturbances. In 2010, 65 percent reported interrupted sleep associated with drinking. This year, 55 percent reported it.

Linowski said that Massachusetts is in the top 10 for youth binge-drinking rates, and noted that the state’s alcohol tax is low compared to the taxes in other states. UMass has other risk factors as well, she said: It’s a public university, it has a rural location, it has a Greek system and Division 1 sports teams, and it has a predominantly white student body.

The survey numbers provide guidance to the coalition on where to focus its efforts, Linowski said.

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