I-Team: Miami University considering new ideas to curb alcohol abuse

Ramped up efforts come after death, arrests

OXFORD, Ohio -- Changes are coming to how Miami University handles alcohol abuse among its students.

The university identified binge drinking as a major issue nearly 20 years ago and developed a plan to manage it. Now, the school is taking another hard look at itself after Erica Buschick died from alcohol poisoning in January.

"As a president, I am disappointed and even angry," Miami University President Greg Crawford said of the alcohol issue at a recent board of trustees meeting. "As a father, I'm concerned and devastated."

Records show police arrested 26 students for underage drinking on March 16 -- also known as Green Beer Day -- this year. Police say most of the underage drinking happens at large house parties. In February, police arrested 35 underage students over one weekend, and 11 underage women went to the hospital for alcohol poisoning in one night.

 

The university has already ramped up its alcohol education programs and started a good Samaritan policy to encourage students to call for emergency help. Yet the recent student death, and regular student trips to emergency and court rooms, indicate there's more work to do.

Are parents the key to a solution?

Last month, John Clapp visited Miami University to review the school's alcohol policies and education efforts. Clapp is a professor and associate dean for research and faculty development at Ohio State University and also the director of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Recovery at OSU.

Based on Clapp's review and ongoing internal deliberations, Miami University officials are increasing their focus on several areas, according to university spokeswoman Claire Wagner:

  • Considering policy changes that address the abuse of hard alcohol
  • Considering modifications to the good Samaritan policy
  • Looking into ways to strengthen their partnership with parents -- through enhanced educational opportunities, for example
  • Looking into developing more customized and expanded educational and support interventions for those who may be at risk

The prosecutor's office and the coroner's office also are getting involved on the education front. In Butler County, students busted for underage drinking almost always get sentenced to a diversion program Prosecutor Mike Gmoser runs. Most of the cases are eventually sealed.

Gmoser also sends a letter to parents of students arrested for underage drinking as part of efforts to eliminate the problem.

"Your child is presumed innocent of this charge until proven guilty and because your child is an adult you have no obligation whatsoever regarding this charge," the letters state. "This notification is made in the event this information is helpful to you in addressing any issue you deem appropriate concerning your child's conduct."

Current state laws make too much partying too easy, Gmoser said. In Ohio, 18-year-olds are allowed in bars but can't drink booze.

"I do think allowing 18-year-olds to be in 21-year-old facilities is not a good thing. I'm against that," Gmoser said. "It's also a dumb thing to do to allow you to bring a parent to a university and allow them to take their kids out and share alcohol with them in a restaurant."

Gmoser believes giving students and parents more alcohol education is necessary.

‘We treat it like Prohibition’

A 2015 report from the school shows student drinking is higher at Miami than the national average. A review of its alcohol policies from a year earlier found the school focused too much on managing the problem instead of working to stop it.

"I think Miami University is very punitive on their end, and I think they're not really looking at the solution," defense attorney Wayne Staton said. "What's the problem and how to address the problem?"

Staton has defended thousands of Miami students during the past 38 years. He said he believes a big change has been a shift from students drinking beer to students drinking hard liquor.

"Students are great kids," Staton said. "I think what we've done is, we've painted them in a corner. We treat it like Prohibition."

The I-Team reviewed county court records for underage drinking cases and found Judge Robert Lyons has presided over about 1,600 of them since the beginning of 2012.

"Of course it's a lot, it's a college town," Lyons said. "I'm sure our numbers are similar to other colleges."

Miami's student population is roughly twice the size of Oxford, the city where it is located.

For comparison, the I-Team also asked for municipal court records from Athens County, where Ohio University is located. That campus is in a rural area with a similar student population. The records show about 1,000 underage drinking cases during the same five years.

Lyons said most underage Miami students who end up in court are first-time offenders.

"It's not something to be taken lightly," Lyons said. "Every day of my professional life, I deal with people's lives who've been ruined by alcohol."

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