ANNAPOLIS — When 19-year-old Daniel Reardon was found unconscious in the lounge of a University of Maryland, College Park fraternity house last week, the long-running debate about underage drinking and fraternity life reopened.
Though police have not publicly stated the cause of Reardon’s death, his family has blamed alcohol. And, the incident has already prompted talk of binge drinking and alcohol education. His is the second death attributed to substance abuse this academic year and some say an illustration of the need to tighten the university’s alcohol policy.
“This terribly sad, tragic event reminds us that there is still much to do,” Maryland Vice President for Student Affairs Linda Clement wrote to the student body, informing them Reardon had been removed from life support Thursday.
In the higher education community there is a great divide between those who say 18-year-olds are adults with the right to govern themselves and others who abide by the notion that parents — who often pay tuition and other college expenses — should be kept informed.
Maryland has leaned toward giving students autonomy.
“We really value self-governance,” said Matt Supple, director of Greek Life.
Last week, a national center that studies college substance abuse said student-developed alcohol policies, such as the one created by Maryland’s fraternities and sororities, leave room for students to shirk responsibility and break rules.
“There’s plenty of room for those policies not to be abided by,” said Helen Stubbs, spokeswoman for the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention.
UM officials disagree. Maryland has a solid alcohol policy, bolstered by a good education program and a police force that stringently enforces university rules, Clement said.
“We’re pretty strong in that area, particularly with regards to educating our students and, in particular, our Greek students,” Clement said.
Curbing alcohol abuse among college students, especially fraternity members, is an old problem.
Greek organizations have been on Maryland’s campus for more than 80 years and troubles with alcohol abuse have plagued some of the groups for as many years.
The organizations are, in part, made up of student leaders who value autonomy. Members also have been shown to be high-risk drinkers. A 1996 national study found that 75 percent of fraternity members drank at least 5 drinks in a row, compared to 45 percent of other male students, according to National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.
Though police have not issued a statement on Reardon’s cause of death, his family has said they believe alcohol played a part.
In September, 20-year-old Alexander Klochkoff’s death was attributed in part to GHB, or gamma hydroxybutyrate, an illegal drug popular at dance parties called raves.
Both men were found on the university’s Fraternity Row.
After Klochkoff’s death at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house last year, a group of fraternity and sorority members made the Greek social policy stricter. Fewer people may attend fraternity parties, guests must receive invitations and graduate students check the parties a couple of times a night for alcohol violations. Bouncers must check identification at the door. Parties must serve snacks and non-alcoholic beverages.
Geof Brown, a recent UM graduate and member of the North-American Interfraternity Conference alcohol task force, said colleges have more success reining in alcohol abuse if they allow students to police themselves. “The schools where there isn’t that much self governance, the students end up feeling less empowered, and they move their social events underground. They are doing whatever, wherever, whenever they want,” Brown said. That philosophy has holes in it, Stubbs said.
In Reardon’s case, it appears the student-developed rules were not followed. The night before he was found unconscious, Reardon was at Phi Sigma Kappa’s bid night – the culmination of fraternity rush.
Maryland’s alcohol policy bans drinking at recruitment events. Such events have historically led to hazing involving alcohol games and other abuse on college campuses.
Another problem: the fraternity did not register the event with the University as required.
University and Phi Sigma Kappa spokesmen said they will discipline the fraternity if an investigation finds it violated policy.
Discipline after the fact is too late, said Ames Sweet, spokesman for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
“You want to get in front of the wave rather than having the wave crash down and trying to clean up afterward,” he said.
Sweet, like many who study alcohol abuse, could not offer substantive measures for curbing fraternity drinking. The university’s alcohol prevention program already has a substantial peer education group that makes presentations to student organizations and is visible at campus events. It conducted more than 60 presentations last fall.
Still, alcohol abuse among college students is an issue with tragic consequences. In recent years, the problem has become more costly for universities.
In January 2000, the family of a student who died of alcohol poisoning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was awarded $6 million in an out-of- court settlement. The 18-year-old freshman died while after drinking large quantities at a 1997 MIT fraternity initiation.
Although the circumstances are similar, there has been no public talk of a lawsuit in the Reardon case.
In a statement to the media, the Reardon family said they hope the tragedy of their son’s death warns others of “the dangers of substance abuse.” To protect themselves against liability, some universities have tightened their policies, going as far as calling parents when they catch underage drinkers. The federal government tweaked educational privacy laws in 1998, allowing universities to more easily tell parents about their children’s behavior.
Since then, Texas A&M University, Penn State University and about 60 other schools have imposed policies that alert parents when their underage students are caught drinking.
More than half of the schools had parental-notification policies, while one-fourth said they were considering one, according to a January 2000 survey of about 200 colleges by the Association for Student Judicial Affairs.
Early looks at parental notification rules show they work.
“We have very few second offenders,” said Dennis Reardon, alcohol and drug education program coordinator at Texas A&M University.
Maryland fraternity and sorority members will review the school’s Greek alcohol policy again, Supple said. Changes to that policy made after Klochkoff’s death did not affect fraternity recruitment events, which already ban alcohol. The university does not monitor recruitment events, which share the secrets and traditions of Greek organizations. “Part of growing as adults is being able to govern ourselves,” said Brown, the UM graduate and former IFC president at the University. “It’s a question of whether students are going to use good judgment and make healthy decisions.” – 30 – CNS-2-15-02