September 20, 2014

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Campus program to reduce alcohol violations criticized

COLUMBUS — Chelsea Krueger knows she was breaking the law, no denying it. It’s her punishment she has a beef with. For illegally sipping beer on the morning of an Ohio State University football game — she’s 19 in a state where the legal limit is 21 —

Krueger was handcuffed, loaded in a police van and hauled off to jail for six hours.

Krueger was caught by undercover police officers at a friend’s house a few blocks off campus using a federal grant to curb underage drinking, a program that has drawn the ire of students at Ohio State, the country’s largest campus.

Students raised enough concerns that a city-campus safety committee invited officers from the program to brief the committee in October. The program, known as the STOP Campus Project, is not connected to the university or its community efforts to reduce problem drinking.

The project is funded with federal money available to states and local governments for programs to prevent and control crime. It’s the only such campus initiative in Ohio.

National experts say there is no evidence such arrests do anything to address high-risk drinking unless they’re part of a comprehensive approach in which universities and police departments work together.

“These enhanced enforcements do nothing other than drive the drinking underground,” said James Turner, executive director of the National Social Norms Institute at the University of Virginia.

The institute promotes prevention of alcohol abuse through the modeling of healthy behavior instead of traditional scare tactics.

In an e-mail to Ohio State students earlier this fall, vice president of student affairs Rich Hollingsworth called STOP’s arrest process a “humiliating eight-hour or longer ordeal.”

“I hear an awful lot from students that it is misdirected,” Hollingsworth said in an interview.

“There is a perception that this program is targeting people peacefully sitting on their porches having a beer and not going after people who are seriously intoxicated or those selling to underage minors,” he said.

Hollingsworth said he doesn’t have an opinion on the effectiveness of the program because he hasn’t seen any data regarding whether it works.

As prostitutes ran their fingers through Krueger’s hair and told her how pretty she was, she couldn’t help question her situation.

“They’re putting the wrong students in jail,” said the sophomore from Westchester, N.Y. “The people who should be more harshly punished are the ones putting themselves in dangerous situations.”

After a court appearance the following Monday, Krueger pleaded guilty, was fined $50 and told the arrest would be on her record for a year.

A $35,000 grant from the Department of Justice funds the STOP Campus Project. It pays overtime to officers from seven central Ohio police departments, including sheriff’s deputies and agents with the state’s investigative unit.

The project operates only on days when Ohio State plays football at home.

Officers approach any student in a publicly accessible area, including porches, if they’re drinking and appear underage. There are no interviews or excuses: if a student is too young to drink, he or she goes to jail.

STOP’s coordinator said the program is effective, saying things have calmed down since 2002. That’s the year rowdy fans set fires and hurled bottles at police following Ohio State’s victory over Michigan.

Video of the riots became a staple of TV news reports and an ongoing embarrassment to the university. The university took a hard look at student drinking and police stepped up enforcement

“All the efforts combined really made a difference,” said Lt. Shawn Bain of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.

The STOP Campus Project arrested 211 people this fall, including 147 Ohio State students and 50 students from other colleges.

Bain said what seems a minor offense to Ohio State students is a misdemeanor of the first degree in Ohio, equivalent to assault and other serious crimes.

He also acknowledges that students don’t always understand what’s happening or why they’re being targeted.

“It is a little confusing for the kids on campus,” Bain said.

Things have calmed down, but they are by no means perfect. In mid-September, rioting broke out with hundreds of partygoers after a party spilled out onto an off-campus neighborhood. A police helicopter and 20 cruisers arrived and officers needed repeated doses of mace to break up the party.

The University Area Safety Committee, consisting of campus and city police, business owners and student leaders and staff, invited Bain to address its October meeting after hearing concerns from students.

“It’s unfortunate that public resources have to be expended to deal with it, but given the problems in the past, the police have to patrol the area and watch for parties getting out of control,” said Steve Sterrett, the safety committee’s secretary.

The government’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a division of the National Institutes of Health, recommends a multifaceted approach. The Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center, which works with campuses around the country to reduce problem drinking, also suggests a comprehensive model, which can include arrests and increased enforcement.

At New York’s University at Albany, students, university officials, campus and city police officers, off-campus landlords and bar owners all work together to reduce problem drinking.

“We really do the education first so we don’t have to do as much enforcement,” said Thomas Gebhart, the university’s director of personal safety and off-campus affairs.

The University of Northern Colorado educates students on how to prevent problems caused by excessive drinking and follows through with consistent sanctions ranging from a police citation to expulsion.