Longtime college drinking culture makes change difficult
MENOMONIE, Wis. (AP) – Each time Nate Kirkman works with college students to address alcohol-related problems, he thinks about the possible ramifications of their behavior.
He recalls the countless underage drinking citations and drunken driving instances he has learned of as assistant dean of students at UW-Stout.
He remembers cases of students so drunk they wandered into the wrong homes, or those so inebriated they pass out and spend the night outdoors wherever they happen to collapse in a booze-fueled haze.
He revisits reported sexual assaults, vandalism, fights and other happenings that occurred because those involved had drank way too much alcohol.
And he envisions the worst days of his job, when he learned students had died because of excessive alcohol use. Seven UW-Stout students have done so in the past decade.
“Those deaths have a carryover effect when you work with students afterward,” Kirkman said. “You know what the potential outcome of them consuming too much alcohol could be. It makes you fearful of the next big mistake and what that means for everyone involved.”
Kirkman’s fears were renewed earlier last month when he learned that police issued 116 alcohol-related citations, including 45 for underage drinking and 23 for fake IDs, to patrons at the Rehab tavern in downtown Menomonie. That occurrence is an example of ongoing problem drinking by UW-Stout students despite continuing efforts to curb that behavior, he said.
The Leader-Telegram reports that the issuance of so many citations at Rehab that night has prompted renewed discussion at UW-Stout and elsewhere in the Menomonie community about the need to address underage, high-risk drinking in particular and alcohol abuse in general.
In a blog posted April 19, university Chancellor Bob Meyer called so many citations at the tavern “revolting” and said he was disappointed to learn of them. He subsequently told the Leader-Telegram the underage citations at Rehab were “a wake-up call” signifying more work is needed to address alcohol abuse by students.
“This situation was very troubling,” Meyer said. “While we have made progress addressing underage drinking, this was a sign that there is a lot of room for improvement.”
The university has taken multiple steps to address student drinking, including the formation in 2010 of a high-risk drinking action plan. Studies show those efforts have had successes such as reducing the number of students on campus who drink alcohol.
Despite those efforts, heavy alcohol consumption still persists. Meyer is calling on taverns and others in the Menomonie community to help reduce that behavior.
The owner of Rehab, Menomonie resident David Zempel, said he takes the issuance of citations at his tavern on April 12 “very seriously” and has made changes – including adding workers to better check IDs, installing a camera to monitor the area where IDs are checked and hiring a consulting service to administer training to better monitor IDs.
Underage people who entered his bar that night presented fake IDs, Zempel said, making it difficult to determine who was there legally. His employees discovered three fake IDs before police arrived that night at the bar, he said, and they turn over about 300 fake IDs annually to Menomonie police.
“We didn’t knowingly serve to underage persons,” Zempel said, noting fake IDs are a problem in the bar scene.
Zempel said he has reached out to Meyer and city officials and hopes to address the situation at his bar through ongoing dialogue.
Menomonie Mayor Randy Knaack called the situation at Rehab “an isolated incident” and said the vast majority of tavern owners in the city abide by underage regulations and work to prevent people younger than 21 from drinking alcohol at their establishments.
Still, the April 12 incident at Rehab “certainly got the attention of the city,” Knaack said. City officials plan to discuss the matter, he said, and may take action related to it.
Chief Eric Atkinson said police are considering enforcement options against Rehab and Zempel. Rehab has passed previous alcohol compliance checks, Atkinson said.
In addition to Rehab, Zempel owns The District Pub & Grill in Eau Claire, as well as Alluring Acres, a wedding venue in New Auburn.
Alcohol abuse by college students is a time-honored tradition that occurs at schools across the country. For most students, going to college represents their first time away from their parents for an extended period. That, combined with youth and lack of life experiences, sometimes leads to risky behaviors.
Nationally, more than 1,800 college students between ages 18 and 24 die annually from alcohol-related injuries in the U.S., according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Like at UW-Stout, officials at UW-Eau Claire have worked to address high-risk drinking by students and have made progress during the past couple of decades, the university’s dean of students, Joseph Abhold, said. Changes regarding alcohol-related policies have involved addressing excessive alcohol use during the annual homecoming celebration, he said, and have included such actions as altering that event’s parade route and more proactively addressing house parties.
The university works with students who violate a code of conduct and links them to required options such as community service and alcohol education, Abhold said. Last year was the first in which students having issues with alcohol watched a video about the topic and wrote a paper about it.
“It shows them it’s not just college students who live in a neighborhood, but other people live there too,” Abhold said of the video.
Abhold acknowledged some students cause problems because of drunken behavior, but “most of our students are great members of this community. They do a lot of really good things.”
On April 12, a Thursday, one UW-Stout student after another entered the Rehab bar. When city, university and Dunn County law enforcement officers arrived there later that night after receiving a tip about underage alcohol sales, they found more than 45 people there younger than 21.
The crowd of underage students there didn’t come as a surprise to those in Menomonie familiar with the bar scene. The Rehab is known as a place where underage drinkers can congregate, they say. People buy wristbands and wear them to the bar on Thursday nights, giving them access to cheap beer and rail mixed drinks, sources say.
“That bar does have a reputation with students for being a party bar,” said Kirkman, the UW-Stout assistant dean of students. “I’ve asked students how they know to go there if they are underage, and they say everybody knows it. … (The Rehab) seems to be known as an underage haven.”
Zempel disagreed, saying underage drinkers “are not my normal clientele.” He acknowledged some underage drinkers frequent his tavern and said he “is taking steps to combat that issue.” He said he offers drink specials, but none after midnight.
Some Eau Claire taverns also advertise drink specials designed to appeal to students. On Wednesday night, patrons enjoyed Blugold Night drink specials at Pioneer Tavern. Nearby, The Pickle also is known for hosting drink specials that attract many UW-Eau Claire students.
Abhold and others said they would like to see the number of bars targeting high-risk alcohol consumption reduced, but doing so is difficult.
“Anytime a bar opens early in the morning or is heavily advertising cheap drink specials and drinking contests … and a bar fills up with heavily intoxicated people, it is very concerning,” he said.
Wisconsinites have a well-earned reputation nationally for consuming copious amounts of alcohol. And those in Eau Claire County drink more alcohol than the norm for the state, figures show.
A breakdown of the state’s 72 counties shows at-risk drinking here is a significant factor in causing early death via drunken driving-related crashes and health problems. Statistics show people ages 40 to 60 who call the Badger State home drink more alcohol than most of their peers across the nation.
Recently, Eau Claire city officials attempted to address alcohol abuse in a way that would have strengthened police authority in cases of excessive drinking. But UW-Eau Claire students and others objected to the measure to upgrade the city’s public good order ordinance, and on March 13 the City Council tabled action on that item to allow further debate.
Such debate is occurring in the form of discussions among a group of a couple of dozen people who make up the Ad Hoc Neighborhood Safety and Relations Task Force. The committee was formed to continue discussions about alcohol abuse and resulting behaviors in the wake of the tabling of the public good order ordinance change. Its members comprise a diverse group, from law enforcement to public health officials to tavern owners to Water Street neighbors.
The group has met twice and is scheduled again Monday. Eventually, group members plan to recommend proposals to the City Council. Addressing alcohol issues is a challenge, Eau Claire City-County Health Department director Lieske Giese said, but she is impressed by the group’s discussions so far.
“I don’t know what is going to come out of this,” Giese said. “But I am heartened that there is a recognition alcohol is a problem in Eau Claire, and that there is a willingness to work on it.”
Changing alcohol-related rules is one thing, but changing a culture that typically includes alcohol in celebrations and social gatherings is another, Giese and others say. Addressing alcohol use with children before drinking – and sometimes overdrinking – becomes ingrained in their behavior would help, they say.
By the time many students get to college, they already periodically abuse alcohol, said Jacob Bloom, a senior counselor and alcohol and other drug abuse coordinator at UW-Stout.
“Drinking is a big part of our culture. It is a societal thing,” Bloom said. “The earlier you can start with education about the dangers of overconsumption of alcohol, the better.”
In addition, Bloom said, tavern operators could reduce the amount of binge drinking by training servers to recognize when patrons have had too much to drink and by better enforcing ID checks and recognizing fake IDs.
Giese said research shows past efforts in Eau Claire have lessened high-risk alcohol use among teens and middle-schoolers. Likewise, Bloom and Abhold say efforts at their universities that began years ago have slowly but surely curbed alcohol abuse. They credit ongoing conversations about the topic with moving the needle toward more awareness about the dangers of high-risk drinking.
“You have to have those conversations,” Bloom said. “When you have a significant incident involving alcohol in your community, you have to get people talking about it. That is the way you can start to shift a culture.”