After student deaths, SMU opens with sobering mission
3 deaths awaken campus, but is substance abuse ingrained?
By HOLLY K. HACKER / The Dallas Morning News
UNIVERSITY PARK – Students and parents at Southern Methodist University's orientation watch a film about a fraternity pledge in Massachusetts who died after a rum and beer binge. They learn that half of the nation's high school seniors have tried illegal drugs and that 1,700 college students die each year from injuries tied to alcohol.
The message is particularly painful – and relevant – as this school year begins at SMU.
Between December and May, three undergraduates died of drug or alcohol overdoses. That toll would stand out at any college, but it's especially conspicuous at SMU, a close-knit campus of 11,000 students that has long tried to shake its party-school reputation.
So with dormitories and fraternity houses full again and classes under way, campus leaders are trying new approaches and beefing up past efforts to curb drug and alcohol abuse. Professors and other staffers have ideas of their own.
Will they work? This academic year is a crucial test.
Some faculty, parents and students have criticized SMU's administration for doing too little, too late last year to address substance abuse or investigate the student deaths. A few wonder whether some endeavors, like a task force created by the administration after the fatalities, are more about public relations than the hard work of changing the campus culture.
"The university will say that it's doing a lot, it's putting in place a lot of new programs. But in my estimation, they are things that have been created to look good. It's window-dressing," said George Henson, a Spanish lecturer and one of the most vocal critics.
Others, including campus administrators, say SMU takes the problem seriously and continues to do all it reasonably can.
Emphasis on "reasonably." Because experts say that if SMU's going to make lasting changes, it can't make them alone, especially when drug and alcohol problems seep beyond campus borders.
It's a complicated mission, one that can take years to carry out fully.
"All of us must do more, and more often, to make an impact," SMU President Gerald Turner said in a written statement announcing the task force. It requires a partnership with the campus, parents, students, police and community leaders, he said.
Several students and parents at orientation said they aren't worried, noting that drugs and alcohol are a problem on many campuses.
But Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor, says SMU – and its students – can't fall back on that excuse.
"I think it's fair to say we're not the only ones that have this problem – but we're not responsible for what happens at other campuses. Our question is, what can we do here to improve the situation?"
Names are known
Even if students didn't know them, they now know their names: Jake Stiles. Jordan Crist. Meaghan Bosch. All three died within six months last school year.
First it was Mr. Stiles, a 20-year-old sophomore from Naperville, Ill. In December, just before finals, he was found dead in his room at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house. The cause: a mixture of cocaine, alcohol and a prescription painkiller called fentanyl.
Then in early May, Mr. Crist was found unconscious in a dorm room. Two hours later the 19-year-old freshman from Hinsdale, Ill., was dead, his blood alcohol level five times the legal limit.
Just two weeks later, Ms. Bosch, a 21-year-old senior from McKinney, disappeared. A few days later, construction workers found her body in a portable toilet near Waco. She had overdosed on cocaine, methamphetamine and the painkiller oxycodone.
Rick Halperin, who has taught at SMU since 1985, calls the deaths outrageous. He can't recall another year where three students died from that kind of behavior.
SMU held memorial services and offered grief counselors. But some professors and students suggest more could have been done to confront the problem of substance abuse.
"Clearly when you have more than one [death], we should have been having so
me discussion, and I don't recollect that that occurred," said Dr. Halperin, who directs SMU's human rights education program.
Even before the second and third deaths, some students demanded more action. The editorial board of the student newspaper, the Daily Campus , took SMU and Sigma Alpha Epsilon to task for how they handled Mr. Stiles' death, saying it wasn't an isolated incident.
"Talk circulates through campus daily about who is doing what new drug," read an editorial in January. "Other than making a police report, and sending out a few mass e-mails (including a patronizing 'this, children, is why drugs are bad' message) little seems to have been done."
Nearly all students, parents and professors interviewed by The Dallas Morning News said they do not believe SMU has a bigger substance abuse problem compared to most campuses. And, Dr. Halperin added, he doesn't think SMU tried to play down the deaths.
"I just don't think the response was visible enough, vocal enough or informed enough, given the scale of that tragedy," Dr. Halperin said.
SMU administrators say they've responded on multiple fronts and keep doing so.
In June, Dr. Turner announced a task force on substance abuse prevention that includes professors, administrators, students and a parent. The group will evaluate whether SMU's current programs need changes or additions. It also will examine broader factors that can affect students' choices about drinking and drugs, like class schedules that make it easy to start partying early on Friday, and habits students develop before they ever set foot on campus.
"This is a great opportunity to really reinvent what we're doing, if we think that's what we need to do," said Dee Siscoe, dean of student life and co-chair of the task force.
"I am pleased that SMU has formed the task force and is working on additional steps to help with prevention of drug use," Tom Stiles, Jacob Stiles' father, said in an e-mail. "Two areas where I believe they are missing the point are: enforcement of current rules, and doing something to limit accessibility of drugs to at risk students."
"Fentanyl is a horrendous drug. It seems to me that more should have been done to go after the supplier."
Asked whether SMU waited too long to form such a group, Mr. Stiles said, "It's hindsight, but it appears they should've acted sooner rather than waiting until three students have died."
The task force's mission sounds similar to what another campus committee suggested – almost a year ago.
That committee was formed to study the timing of fraternity and sorority rush and its effect on academic life. But as the group met over the 2005-06 school year the scope widened to include what the group called the "alcohol/party culture at SMU."
In a September 2006 report, it noted that many Greek-sponsored parties happen on Wednesday, Thursday or other school nights. Few classes are held on Fridays, adding to the party culture.
The committee had specific concerns with fraternity and sorority "bus parties," so named because students ride buses to off-campus festivities, often to drink. The report said the campus takes a strict hands-off stance so it cannot be held legally responsible for what happens off campus.
The report said professors on the committee were "frankly stunned," and that SMU "must reconsider this 'see no evil, hear no evil' approach."
The university acted on some recommendations, but not all. For instance, SMU still doesn't monitor off-campus events, but the student affairs office does offer students tips to reduce the chances of trouble at parties.
Other programs encourage students to take responsibility for their conduct and intervene with friends in trouble.
The challenge for students, as university Chaplain William Finnin put it, is: "How do you express care for somebody whom you know may be making some really poor decisions? We felt that this was one way to break that cycle of silence and to provide assistance to students."
SMU has also hired a full-time health educator, a new position this year, to work more with students. On the agenda: a new online newsletter and revamping a peer education program.
Many counseling, training and other programs have been on the Hilltop for years.
SMU continues, like most universities, to discipline students for drug and alcohol violations through both the campus police department and the judicial affairs office.
The university has beefed up its police department, and this summer, SMU police started meeting quarterly on campus with police from Dallas and the Park Cities, plus a North Texas federal drug force. The idea is to meet in person and share information and ideas, said SMU's new police chief, Richard Shafer.
SMU's Center for Teaching Excellence holds an optional faculty roundtable each fall on identifying and helping students with various problems, from cheating to substance abuse. In light of the campus deaths and the Virginia Tech shootings, this year's version will emphasize how faculty can best deal with troubled students.
Dennis Foster, an English professor who sits on the new task force, said it's important for students to take action, too.
"I would like students to be talking more openly about this, so that those who are disturbed by what's going on don't feel isolated in their response," he said.
In fact, many students said they believe SMU officials are doing plenty.
"I think they do what they can. There's a lot that can't be done – I think it's also our choice. We're in college, not high school," said Fabiana Gonzalez, a junior.
Several parents share the same philosophy. Laura Classen, the parent of a new freshman, said she trusts her daughter to make good decisions.
"I'm not any more concerned about her being here than at any other college," Ms. Classen said. "I think they're doing as good a job here as can be done."
Another freshman parent, Elizabeth Briceno, said: "I think in all the colleges you have the same problem. It's not just SMU. I'm not concerned."
Experts say it can take 10 to 15 years to deeply change the culture on campuses. SMU is still widely considered a party school – in fact, the first "bus party" of the year happened last Thursday after the first day of classes. At the same time, this year's entering class has the highest average SAT scores ever, and the greatest number of President's Scholars – a sign that SMU has its share of serious students, too.
Experts say campus leaders must be vigilant and students must take responsibility if the culture is to change. They also can work with off-campus bars and businesses to enforce alcohol laws.
Experts also advocate forging a comprehensive plan with a range of approaches to help students make healthier choices, because no one tactic works for everyone.
"The most effective way to reduce drug and alcohol-related problems is to change the campus and the community environment," said Helen Stubbs, an associate director at the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention. "Students can't make responsible decisions if they're immersed in an environment that's encouraging them to make irresponsible decisions."
WHAT SMU IS DOING
SMU is trying new efforts, and continuing old ones, to prevent student drug and alcohol abuse. Here are some examples.
• Appointed a substance abuse prevention task force in June. The group is supposed to make recommendations to President Gerald Turner in December.
• Created a program called "Because I Care" to help students intervene with friends who have drug or other problems. That, and a program to prevent alcohol abuse, is required for fraternity and sorority leaders, resident assistants and campus ministers.
• Hired a full-time health educator, a new position this year, to work more with students. On the agenda: A new online newsletter, "Student Health 101," and revamping a peer education program.
• Looking to other campuses for ideas, like Texas Tech University's nationally recognized program for students recovering from drug, alcohol or other addictions.
• SMU's police department recently added three officers and a patrol car to better guard campus. The department also hired a contract agency to handle parking violations, leaving officers more time for more serious pursuits.
• As of this summer, SMU police meet quarterly on campus with their counterparts from Dallas and the Park Cities, plus a North Texas federal drug force. The idea is to meet in person and share information and ideas, said SMU's new police chief, Richard Shafer.
• Spurred by the SMU student deaths and the Virginia Tech shootings, the faculty senate is encouraging all professors to record class attendance. That way, if someone thinks a student is in trouble, a professor can see if that student has been coming to class.
• First-year students take a required class called "Wellness" that addresses drugs and alcohol, as well as an online alcohol prevention course, which has been deemed valuable by some students and a waste of time by others.
• Students with drug and alcohol violations are disciplined through both the campus police department and the judicial affairs office. In 2005, the most recent year with data available, SMU reported 234 liquor-related arrests and 12 drug-related ones. That same year, SMU reported 299 referrals to judicial affairs for alcohol violations and 26 for drug violations. Many students cited for violations are referred to SMU's Center for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention for evaluation and education.
WHAT EXPERTS RECOMMEND
Here are some steps experts suggest for reducing substance abuse at colleges:
• Work with local authorities to restrict the number of off-campus stores that sell alcohol.
• Schedule classes on Fridays to cut down on Thursday night parties.
• Enforce drinking and drug laws on campus.
• Work with bar and restaurant owners and police to make sure merchants check IDs, train servers and obey alcohol laws. They should also learn how to spot fake IDs and refuse service.
• Limit where alcohol can be consumed on campus.
• Don't rely solely on educational programs and "scare tactics," like mock drunk-driving crashes.
• Target messages to specific groups of students, such as women, athletes, fraternity/sorority members, etc.
• Invite people from off campus (including area businesses) to join campus substance abuse task forces.
• Give students substance abuse treatment and counseling.
• Encourage police to increase sting operations at local bars and restaurants to check for underage drinking.
• Encourage police to notify college officials of alcohol- and drug-related incidents involving students.
• Make sure students have plenty of activities on campus so they won't rely on drinking parties to socialize.
After student deaths, SMU opens with sobering mission