Students express concern about new university drinking policy

Saturday, February 26th 2005, 3:22 pm
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ The University of Oklahoma's new ban on drinking in dorms and fraternity houses, adopted after a freshman died of alcohol poisoning last fall, has shifted some drinking off campus and led to concerns about a potential increase in drunken driving.

``Freshmen and sophomores are going to drink whether there's a policy or not,'' Tulsa senior Jennifer McPhail said on a recent Thursday night at a packed tavern near campus. ``But where people used to trip and fall on their way home, now they're going to smash into each other in their cars.''

Drunken driving arrests increased slightly in Norman in January, but the new policy has only been in effect since Jan. 18, and officials are still trying to assess its impact.

The university has expanded a free transportation service for students to help address the issue and police are being sensitive to the potential for large, drinking parties off campus.

``Is this going to stop people from drinking?'' asked Norman police Lt. Tom Easley. ``No. You are just displacing the problem somewhere else. You have to take appropriate steps, as they have, to lessen the problem, but you're not going to solve the problem.''

Off-campus student parties can cause problems, he said.

``We seem to see more and more young people who are occupying rent houses. If you live in a residential neighborhood in Norman and you have 300 people descend on your neighborhood for a party, I think that would be considered a disturbance.''

If Norman city officials decide ordinances are required to shut down off-campus party houses, the university has agreed to support such proposals.

Also, as part of the university's new drinking policies, students who drive their own vehicles to off-campus parties sponsored by campus organizations are now required to check car keys at the door and be sober before being allowed to drive home. A three-strikes policy including sanctions, up to suspension, was put in place for students breaking the drinking rules.

A university advisory committee will meet this spring to determine how the new policies are working and if any changes need to be made.

The policies came about after the death of 19-year-old Blake Hammontree. The Sigma Chi pledge was found dead on Sept. 30 inside the fraternity house with a blood alcohol content of 0.42, more than five times the legal limit for driving.

Clarke Stroud, dean of students at OU, headed the panel that drew up the policies. He said drunken driving was a concern of the committee, which was formed by University President David Boren.

``We're aware of that potential problem, and we're proactively taking steps to address it,'' Stroud said.

Enhancements were made to the school's SafeRide program, which offers a free shuttle bus to students traveling to spots around campus.

``We went from a 12-passenger van to a 30-passenger van,'' Stroud said. ``So, students are clearly using it.''

Stroud said university officials also are negotiating a contract with a local cab company to provide free rides to students who may have been drinking at parties and nightspots outside of the area covered by the SafeRide program. That program is tentatively scheduled to begin March 24.

In addition to the ban on alcohol at fraternities and residence halls, off-campus parties with alcohol sponsored by campus-affiliated organizations were restricted to Friday and Saturday nights.

Meanwhile, members of OU's Greek community are still trying to adapt to the policy change that they say has had a major impact on the social scene on campus.

Half a dozen members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity sat around one of the dormitory-style rooms in the expansive, two-story house on College Avenue, watching television on a recent weeknight. Altus senior Christopher Wray strummed an acoustic guitar.

``It's depressing coming back here on a Friday or Saturday night. Nobody's here. It just completely changes the culture of the house,'' Wray said.

``Even though they say it's not a knee-jerk response, it was. We just really don't feel like it will remedy the problem. It's just pushing it somewhere else.''

Lt. Easley said the number of DUI arrests in January 2005 was 69, compared to 59 arrests during the same time last year. The number of arrests for other alcohol-related offenses, like public intoxication and minor in possession of alcohol, was 53, compared to 48 last year.

``We're looking at this as holistically as possible,'' Stroud said. ``The president has our community's best interest in mind, and we're going to provide him with the best possible counsel.''