James Madison University

High Risk Drinking Attitudes on Campus Studied

Posted: February 19, 2913

According to the National Health Assessment II, 65.9% of American college students have consumed alcohol in the last 30 days, with 34% having five drinks or more and falling under the classification of “high-risk” drinkers. At JMU, the 2012 College Health Assessment reported that 69.2% of students drank during the last month, 43.9% of which were “high-risk.” Although JMU does not consume alcohol more often than other schools, over half of students who do drink engage in potentially dangerous and self-destructive habits. Clearly, there is a need for change; a daunting challenge that Dr. Katherine Ott Walter and others believe can benefit from the assistance of faculty members.

Ott Walter has taught in the Health and Human Services department at JMU for five years, but has been working within the alcohol prevention and education field since 1998. In 2010, she and eight other faculty members received a two-year Madison Teaching Fellowship from the Center for Faculty Innovation, and decided to use the time and money to raise awareness and promote changes in campus-wide attitudes regarding alcohol.

“When the conversation initially began, we were wondering how faculty talked about alcohol in class, if they talked about it at all, and what their roles and responsibilities were for alcohol education on campus,” explained Ott Walter. “I remember a student at Ohio University mentioning to me that their business professor used the example of owning a bar on his exam – whether it was there to connect to the student or add entertainment, there are far more positive ways to build those relationships.”

The group of nine split the project’s workload in half, the first segment of which consisted of Ott Walter, Jonathan Paulo, Shannon Johnson, Sarah Brooks, and Alison Fisher examination of 122 JMU professor’s attitudes on student drinking. They developed a survey largely based on one developed by the Core Institute at Southern Illinois University, using a “likert scale” of strongly agree to disagree, with the addition of open-ended questions specific to JMU.

Conflicting attitudes were expected, and Ott Walter says she was not surprised to see some answers with a “this is not my job” mentality. Overwhelmingly, the survey showed that 78% of professors find current rates of consumption a problem and 70% believe that the institution should intervene; however, only 28.5% strongly agreed that they wanted to be personally involved. Ott Walter believes the divided attitudes in individual responsibility reflect a difficulty in relating conversations of alcohol to certain fields of study, but with creativity and an open-mind, she says you can “make it fit,” many examples of which are listed on the Center for Faculty Innovation website.

“The best thing faculty can do is ‘curriculum infusion,’ that is, talking about alcohol alongside material already being taught,” said Ott Walter. “For example, a member of our group, Sarah Brooks, teaches Art History. During a lecture, she realized a piece the class was examining contained a goblet of wine and a man who appeared to be intoxicated. She started a conversation with her students about the impact of alcohol, and it worked. Another example is a member of our group who is comparing JMU’s rates of drinking with statistics of sexual violence in her Communications class.”

While the survey was underway, the rest of the group, Thad Herron, Hilda Taylor, Molly Brown, and Wanchi Huang, worked with the Varner House to develop “Here to Help,” a training program designed to familiarize faculty with campus resources available to students in distress or  crisis, including resources for those experiencing problems with alcohol use and abuse. The goal was to enable professors to properly deal with situations, preparing them to retain a non-judgmental attitude toward students while leading them to appropriate care.

With these two segments of the project complete and the Provost’s permission, the group as a whole decided to implement a new feature for the faculty MyMadison website, alerting them to “high-risk weekends.” By remaining aware of party weekends, such as Homecoming and home game days, opportune professors can dole out good advice or even set exam and homework assignment due dates for the following Monday. Both are small but effective ways for faculty to encourage positive drinking behaviors and provide students with a supportive atmosphere in which they can make good decisions.

Faculty members play an important role in addressing JMU’s drinking problem, but Ott Walter also believes that the very geography of the city contributes to high-risk student drinking. In addition to a substantial influx in downtown bar culture over the last decade, a growing trend in Harrisonburg has been dense student living. In these student-only areas, parties can go on until any hour, at any volume, with only students available to police each other’s behavior.

“There are no community members, and that means no good role models,” said Ott Walter. “There’s no maintenance of the neighborhood, no one to call the cops when a party gets out of control. Students will ordinarily call if there is potential violence – a gun, a fight, a knife – but they usually do not report the things community members do, such as noise violations.

Environment also plays a role in the advertising practices of local convenience stores and restaurants, as alcohol is often placed in strategic and highly visible locations as a way to heighten appeal and increase sales. A group of students from Ott Walter’s Use and Effects of Drugs class recently observed this phenomenon in an “environmental scan,” completed in affiliation with “Strong Families/Great Youth Coalition,” a local organization that encourages better standards of living and decreased substance abuse. Several students teamed up with local teenagers to visit various locations around Harrisonburg and study attitudes towards alcohol in the larger community.

One student in the class was Psychology major Cheyenne Facchina, who shared her observations of the conundrum JMU faces in changing student’s attitudes about alcohol:

“JMU has obtained a reputation for its drinking culture, and now it is almost as if students are living up to a standard. We are perceived as a party school, so we act like a party school. When looking past the drinking stereotype of the campus, one will actually find that JMU does a remarkable job at promoting and providing alternate activities to alcohol consumption. The university also requires students to take an alcohol education test/survey and has multiple programs concerning alcohol-related issues. Although it is not really part of their job description, I do think that professors in all departments should and could play a role in changing attitudes. Discussing the multiple risks associated with abuse can help prevent it, as well as reminding students that one does not have to be a raging alcoholic to have a problem – binge drinking can be just as harmful.”

Although college students are never going to stop drinking, the guidance of good mentors can aid in the development of positive ideals and behaviors that will continue throughout their lifetime. However, decreasing the rate of “high-risk” drinking is ultimately not up to the university or its faculty members, but the JMU student body. Successfully creating a healthier campus will depends on the student’s willingness to take responsibility, their vested commitment to the project, and their on-going accountability of one another.      

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