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Naval Academy refines policies on problem drinking

Baltimore Sun Media Group
Naval Academy scales back its Breathalyzer testing of mids

As the fall terms opens at the Naval Academy, officials continue to refine policies and programs to combat problem drinking — an issue that has plagued the school for years.

Officials also are encouraging midshipmen to develop their own programs to promote responsible drinking; the alcohol and drug education officer works with several dozen midshipmen. The school also continues to limit Breathalyzer testing, especially for students who are over the age of 21, in an effort to ensure that midshipmen return to the Bancroft Hall dormitory each night.

Now, eight midshipmen, randomly selected from 38 on watch, are tested at 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

In the past, said Lt. Katherine Jensen, the academy's alcohol and drug education officer, "If you came back to Bancroft Hall, you could get Breathalyzed if someone thought you were drunk ... even if you were over the age of 21. That was preventing people from safely coming back to Bancroft."

Founders of the Naval Academy, some 170 years ago, settled on Annapolis to remove midshipmen from "the temptations and distractions that necessarily connect with a large and populous city," according to reports at the time.

Today, though, there are bars blocks away from the academy gates. Barhopping is less of an temptation at, say, the Air Force Academy, set on thousands of acres tucked against the Rocky Mountains.

Naval Academy officials have long grappled with binge and underage drinking among the brigade of more than 4,000 midshipmen.

Last year, a high-profile case alleging sexual assault included testimony about an alcohol-fueled off-campus party in 2012. The allegations highlighted the decades-old tradition of midshipmen renting nearby homes to avoid rules prohibiting most drinking and sexual activity -- underscoring the difficulty academy officials face in strictly regulating social behavior among students.

Three football players were prosecuted after being accused of sexually assaulting a classmate. Charges against two of the players were dropped; the third was acquitted.

Similarly, binge drinking preceded some incidents of sexual assault that were cited in the Department of Defense's Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at Military Service Academies. The report, released earlier this year, includes the summary of one reported assault:

"Naval officer was downtown and presented as intoxicated to the victim who was also celebrating a friend's birthday, which involved enjoying some alcoholic drinks. While attempting to help the officer get home and avoid possible misconduct, victim was subject to unwanted fondling."

To address the problem, school officials have tried various approaches, including Breathalyzer testing.

Two school years ago, individual midshipmen returning at night — even those 21 and older — received Breathalyzer tests on weekends if suspected of being drunk in Bancroft Hall. Last year, two companies of midshipmen, randomly chosen on weekends, received Breathalyzer testing after midnight in the dormitory.

The academy has since revised both policies, scaling back testing that discouraged midshipmen from coming back to campus after drinking, officials said.

Midshipmen may have spent nights at homes of sponsor parents and friends or in hotels, Jensen said. They may have had no place to go.

"It was almost having an unsafe effect," she said.

The Breathalyzer testing of midshipmen 21 and older was thrown out during the 2013-2014 school year, Jensen said. Underage midshipmen may still be tested.

The "ability to return to Bancroft" was cited as an improvement by company commanders participating in focus group discussions for a routine visit by the Naval Inspector General in September 2014.

Findings from that inspection were released to The Capital in April under a Freedom of Information Act request. The inspection found administrative lapses, but no significant failures.

The Breathalyzer testing of two random companies of midshipmen was revised last school year, Jensen said, and the school moved to testing some of those on watch on weekends.

Air Force cadets do not receive Breathalyzer testing, said Air Force spokeswoman Staff Sgt. Veronica Ward.

Officials at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point did not respond to a request for comment.

In Annapolis, midshipmen have created events to promote responsible drinking.

January, for example, they organized a happy hour with discounted beer prices and a few rules: Have a glass of water between drinks. Designate a sober buddy. Eat something.

They've also organized 21st birthday parties with limited drinks and alcohol education.

"It gives them some sense of control over what's going on and might reinforce that sense of unity among the midshipmen," said Erin Artigiani, deputy director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland at College Park. "Giving them input on how policies are developed and enforced, it might make them feel more responsible for adhering to them."

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