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Dartmouth College tackles binge drinking culture

In two years, a dramatic drop in hospitalizations

Brandon Harrington, a recent Dartmouth graduate who played hockey and belonged to a fraternity, spoke to members of the college’s squash team about high-risk drinking.

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Brandon Harrington, a recent Dartmouth graduate who played hockey and belonged to a fraternity, spoke to members of the college’s squash team about high-risk drinking.

HANOVER, N.H. — It is the school that inspired the movie “Animal House,” that classic paean to fraternity hijinks. Its students are said to have invented the ubiquitous drinking game of beer pong. Last year, the college drew international attention for a former fraternity member’s sensational exposé on alcohol-fueled hazing.

And yet, Dartmouth College has in the past two years become a national leader in trying to reduce binge drinking, making many changes on campus, large and small, and founding a national collaborative to share ideas among dozens of campuses.

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Even more striking, students have spurred some of the innovations, such as sending sober undergraduates to monitor parties for signs of trouble, and coming this fall, banning freshmen from fraternity parties for the first six weeks of school.

Officials see encouraging signs, especially the dramatic drop in the number of students taken to the hospital with blood-alcohol levels of more than 0.25 percent — more than three times the legal limit to drive. That number fell to 31 students this academic year from 80 two years earlier.

Dartmouth’s is a modest approach, based on small experiments with a few students. No one claims, after generations of struggle with the role of alcohol on college campuses, to have discovered the magic formula to make students just say no.

“I don’t think we’ve found the answer,” said Aurora Matzkin, leader of the Dartmouth team working on the issue. “It is so hard to celebrate success because we all know that tomorrow could be the day that we lose a student.”

Still, Matzkin and her colleagues are optimistic that the drop in hospitalizations reflects sustainable improvement.

Two years ago, Jim Yong Kim, Dartmouth’s then-president, founded the National College Health Improvement Program, bringing together 32 universities, including Brown, Yale, Stanford, and the University of Vermont, to address binge drinking. It uses methods that Kim had seen, during his public health career, making inroads battling HIV and tuberculosis in the Third World.

Several of the other universities have also seen improvement in the last two years. Cornell had a 7 percent reduction in high-risk drinking, and Sewanee in Tennessee a 14 percent decrease in alcohol-related incidents.

Dartmouth’s efforts range from stricter enforcement to educational methods that are resolutely nonjudgmental.

Instead of lectures in an auditorium during freshman orientation — not shown to be very effective — every athlete, anyone visiting the infirmary who acknowledges heavy drinking, and any student with an alcohol infraction now gets a confidential talk about alcohol use, using methods based in research.

Underage partying in dorms has long been against the rules, but residence hall advisers, undergraduates themselves, often looked the other way. Now, they have a clear mandate to break up pregaming, the intense drinking sessions that frequently precede a night out.

Many students and staff adamantly deny that Dartmouth is more of a party school than most.

Campus surveys show that the number of students who report binge drinking in the last two weeks is about the same as the national average, around 4 in 10, officials said. And there is palpable anger about Dartmouth’s public image.

But there is no denying that some students engage in extreme and dangerous drinking.

In January 2012, Dartmouth was engulfed in controversy over hazing allegations by student Andrew Lohse that included fraternity pledges being asked to swim in a kiddie pool filled with human waste.

A quarter of the faculty called for an end to single-sex Greek organizations, and Kim was blasted for suggesting he was powerless to change fraternity culture. Within months, he left to head the World Bank.

There is wide concern in Hanover that alcohol fuels not only hazing but sexual assault and discrimination. This spring, the campus was shaken by protests that Dartmouth has not properly addressed sexual assaults, racism, and homophobia. Vitriol against the protesters got so extreme that Dartmouth had to cancel classes for a day to discuss community respect.

Last week, the federal Department of Education said it is investigating how Dartmouth handles sexual assault.

The approach to high-risk drinking embraced by the national group of colleges is to make “the smallest possible change,” as Matzkin put it, and then track the results.

Dartmouth experimented with asking students flagged for alcohol violations to participate within days in a one-on-one alcohol assessment. They started with five students, then 100.

Dartmouth’s version of the Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students asks students to complete an online questionnaire, and then sit down with a staff member for about a half-hour.

It’s not as didactic as it might sound. The staff ask permission before commenting on a student’s drinking habits. The idea is not to lecture but to draw out what the young person might regret about drinking experiences.

Does she know how many calories are in those beers? Would he like to avoid blackouts? Does she feel guilty for showing up to sports practice hung over?

When the students in the initial trials reported drinking less in follow-up surveys, Dartmouth decided to require the program for every varsity athlete.

The athletes work with Brandon Harrington, a recent Dartmouth graduate who played hockey and belonged to a fraternity.

One recent morning, he showed up in the gym to introduce himself to three squash players who were about to go through the program.

He explained to the athletes, “it’s just really having a conversation. I’m not here to tell anybody what they should or shouldn’t be doing.”

With tousled hair and 5-o’clock shadow, Harrington looks like a student and speaks their language, able to explain how “this many games of [beer] pong is roughly this number of drinks,” he said.

In a 90-day follow-up survey with more than 200 students, the average number of drinks they had consumed in their heaviest drinking episode during the last month fell from 8.1 drinks to 4.4. (Some students question the veracity of the answers.)

Changes to dorm life also started with a small pilot in one residence hall. Advisers were asked to interrupt whenever they saw pregaming, then refer the students involved to the intervention program.

Two sophomores who lived in that dorm during the pilot, who declined to give their names, said they thought the crackdown made drinking even more dangerous. The evenings “went from long, expansive pregames to ‘let’s do six shots before the [adviser] comes back,’ ” said one young woman.

But that perception doesn’t match the evidence, officials said. The cost to fix damage in the dorm — broken window screens, vandalized bulletin boards — dropped by a third that term. And the dean who calls parents when students get hospitalized for intoxication did not have to make any calls during the pilot.

Dartmouth rolled out most of the changes to all residence halls last fall.

The student-led initiative known as Green Team has proven more popular. Dartmouth pays students $11 an hour to attend parties in groups of four, sober. They look for ways to aid revelers who appear to be drinking to excess or exposed to unwanted sexual advances.

Team members like that they get paid to socialize; many are in fraternities or sororities. They don’t necessarily identify themselves as Green Team members, don’t tell anyone what to do, and don’t get anyone in trouble.

Instead, they might offer water or bread sticks, ask a drunk student’s friends to look after him, or suggest the fraternity stop serving him.

Rising senior Kristy Blackwood has a knack for approaching young women who she thinks might be uncomfortable with a man’s attention or too drunk to recognize his interest. Even if she does not know the young woman, she invites her to the ladies room for a chat. Since it’s so common for college women to go to the bathroom in packs, Blackwood’s overtures are usually well-received.

“Even when people did know I was ‘green teaming,’ there’s no real stigma attached to it at Dartmouth,” said Blackwood, a sorority sister who is studying global health. “Students think of it as a really positive thing.”

Seeing students embrace change themselves is heartening to Linda Fowler, government professor, who laments how frequently she sees empty seats and hung over students in class.

“The alternative is that the campus security people are cast in the role of being spies,” she said. “These are smart kids. They are pretty good at outwitting authority figures if they want to.”

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeMarcella.
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