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Two alcohol poisoning deaths on Colo. campuses stir change

FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- The alcohol poisoning deaths of two students at Colorado universities have prompted college and local officials to consider banning drinking at more college activities, limiting the number of liquor licenses surrounding campus and stepping up alcohol education programs aimed at students.

In Fort Collins, where Colorado State University sophomore Samantha Spady was found dead in a fraternity house Sept. 5, an alcohol task force has been formed. In the short term, the university has banned the sale of beer at football games, drawing student protests. Spady, who was 19, had a blood-alcohol level of .436 percent, more than five times the national drunken driving standard of .08 percent.

In Boulder, where University of Colorado freshman Lynn ''Gordie" Bailey was found dead in a fraternity house Sept. 16 with a blood-alcohol level of .328 percent, the City Council voted unanimously to investigate zoning laws, alcohol licensing policies, and code enforcement as ways to curb drinking by college students.

''The problem doesn't stop at the edge of campus," said Gordon Riggle, a councilman in Boulder. ''It's a problem that not any single organization can solve. There has always been an issue with college drinking, but it's reached a point where it is going to take a long-term commitment by several organizations to affect positive change."

In addition to the two Colorado deaths, three other cases of suspected alcohol poisoning of college students have occurred this fall in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Virginia. An estimated 1,400 college students die each year as a result of alcohol abuse, according to a 2002 study by the Task Force of the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Of those deaths, about 300 are attributed to alcohol poisoning, with the rest directly caused by drownings, car crashes, and other accidents.

''There has been alcohol use and abuse for eons, but now the culture has shifted," said Linda Kuk, vice president of student affairs at Colorado State, which she attended 30 years ago. ''What's changed is the magnitude of student's drinking. When I was in college, students would get pretty drunk and fall asleep or maybe throw up, but it's at a whole different level now -- students are dying."

Kuk is cochairwoman of a 28-member alcohol task force formed after Spady's death that includes not only university officials and students, but also members of the medical community, city officials, and representatives from the public school system.

In Boulder, where there are 60 bars within a 1-mile radius of the University of Colorado's campus, city officials are looking at the supply side of the equation. One possibility being considered is limiting liquor licenses. Since Bailey's death, the Boulder Planning Board has denied an application for a nightspot across from campus with a capacity to serve 500 people.

Both communities are focusing on binge drinking. About 40 percent of the nation's college students engage in binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more drinks for women. About 20 percent of students reported binge drinking more than three times in the last two weeks, according to the national advisory council's study.

Two days before her death, Spady posted a message on the Internet saying she planned to get ''extremely wasted" that weekend. The homecoming queen and a Drug Abuse Resistance Education counselor in her Nebraska hometown, Spady drank the equivalent of 30 to 40 beers in an 11-hour spree before her death.

''The blood alcohol content of students checking into detox is on the rise," said Robert Maust, chairman of the standing committee on alcohol at the University of Colorado. ''The profile seems to suggest that students have adopted a high tolerance. They are able to function well, right up to the point that their systems shut down."

Ann Quinn-Zobeck of Bacchus and Gamma, an international organization focusing on peer education as a strategy to prevent alcohol abuse, said, ''A lot of students don't recognize alcohol poisoning, they just think their friend is 'sleeping it off.' They've seen a person do it before and be fine, so they get complacent."

Since Spady's death, Colorado State has launched a ''social norm messaging" education campaign.

''The idea is to let students know that despite the message they are getting to the contrary, the majority of students are responsible when it comes to alcohol consumption," Quinn-Zobeck said.

Bailey, 18, died after participating in a Chi Psi fraternity ritual involving wine and whiskey, Boulder police said. The amount of alcohol he consumed during a two-hour period is equivalent to nearly 22 beers.

''Gordie was a team player," said his stepfather, Michael Lanahan of Dallas. ''If he was told nobody was allowed to leave until the whiskey was gone, he would have done his part."

Jessica Funk, a resident adviser in a dorm at Colorado State, said the problem was broader than fraternities on the Fort Collins campus.

''I think saying the drinking is out of control is an accurate portrayal," she said. ''Students have always gotten drunk, but not to the point where they're blowing a .6 [blood alcohol content on a breathalyzer] like they are now. Something has got to change because the scary part is it just keeps getting worse."

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