When frosh week goes dry: Schools continue efforts to reduce booze abuse on campus
For first-year students at Carleton University, there aren’t many places left for the beer-guzzling, shot-downing and booze-fuelled hooliganism that’s long been synonymous with frosh.
Now 10 years into its “dry” orientation week, the school has been tweaking its alcohol policies over time to make it a more sober affair.
“You hear the stories and the movies about typical university frosh, and it was nothing like that,” says Brianna Gale, a first-year student living in residence at Carleton.
Booze is strictly forbidden at the school’s orientation events, even for students 19 and older. In residence, bottles and kegs are banned, and as of this year, students (of age) can drink only in their dorm rooms — no longer in residence lounges.
Even the campus bars are allowed to serve only to patrons aged 21 and older, and only until 8 p.m., during frosh. Companies and promoters are not allowed to advertise events such as concerts and bar nights where alcohol will be involved.
Meanwhile at the University of Ottawa there’s 101 Week, one of few frosh weeks in Canada still run by student leaders and that continue to offer so-called “wet” events with legal alcohol service.
The differences in frosh weeks at each school — one run by students with alcohol allowed at certain events, and the other run by the administration with booze more or less banned — illustrate a national debate that has been ongoing for years, even decades, about alcohol’s role in campus orientation.
For years, universities and colleges have been steering students away from the blackout parties and lewd behaviour of frosh lore and directing them toward good, clean fun. But as schools across Canada push prohibition-style policies, are students really staying sober?
“I’d say there is (drinking), but they have it very locked down on the parties,” says Dominic Peters, another new Carleton student. “I wouldn’t say it’s disruptive. So in that sense, they’ve controlled it.”
Carleton’s no-alcohol push started with the double cohort of 2005, after Ontario eliminated Grade 13 and post-secondary students suddenly got a year younger. The school estimates at least three-quarters of incoming students each year are underage, a major reason — though one of many — it doesn’t want alcohol at frosh.
“It’s a full-court press, really, to make sure that, as much as possible, alcohol is not a part of our experience,” says Ryan Flannagan, Carleton’s director of student affairs. “But that being said, students who want to consume alcohol will get their hands on alcohol.”
Indeed, therein lies the problem: Underage drinking happens, frosh or not. A 2014 survey by Statistics Canada found that 31 per cent of males and 27 per cent of females aged 18 to 19 were heavy drinkers, defined as having five or more drinks for males and four or more drinks for females, on a single occasion, at least once a month.
Between older siblings, upper-year students and fake IDs, younger students tend to know how they can find alcohol — especially since frosh events themselves are optional.
“They’ll be quiet about it so the rez fellows don’t notice,” says first-year Carleton student Rebekah Scanga. “The ones who are getting drunk and partying, those are the ones who don’t go to frosh.”
Student safety needs more than just alcohol bans, says Catherine Paradis, a senior research and policy analyst with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.
“What are kids going to do? They’re going to go to the bar next door, outside of campus, where you might find the most aggressive low-price alcohol promotion and drinking games.”
Instead, schools need to increase awareness about responsible alcohol use, reduce its negative health effects and provide safer surrounding communities, she says, in a multi-pronged approach that assumes kids will eventually have a drink, or perhaps one too many.
Enter a collaborative formed by nearly 40 post-secondary schools and organizations across the country, including Carleton, which came together last year to form a policy checklist for curbing high-risk drinking on campus.
Led by Acadia University — which introduced one of the most comprehensive campus drinking policies in Canada after a 19-year-old Acadia student died playing a drinking game in 2011 — in tandem with several national organizations, it’s modelled after a similar initiative in the United States anchored at Dartmouth College.
The resulting policy framework will aim to promote other efforts — those that go further than basic booze bans — to communicate and respond to the risks and effects of alcohol use among students.
“We’re not saying that alcohol is not part of the student experience … what we’re focusing on is reducing the harm that comes with overconsumption of alcohol,” says Jennifer Hamilton, executive director of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services, an Ottawa-based group involved in the policy collaborative.
The University of Ottawa’s student union, for example, has a new team of about 50 student first-responders that has cut down ambulance calls by 80 to 90 per cent since its introduction last year, says student vice-president Nicole Maylor.
According to 101 Week policy, student groups must also offer an alternative dry event for every wet event they host.
“We really want students to feel as though they’re not pressured into going to wet events,” says Maylor.
Carleton has been upping its focus on parents, distributing pamphlets and presentations at summer orientation and introducing a newsletter campaign this year to help parents engage their kids in ongoing conversations about responsible drinking.
Both schools require rigorous training processes for their student frosh leaders, which start as early as the spring and include lengthy sessions on alcohol consumption.
“If you’re underage, the position is that you shouldn’t be drinking because it’s not legal,” says Flannagan. “But if you are going to choose to drink … we want you to do it in a safe way.”
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