Towson University works to curb longstanding issues with drinking

One Towson University student drank so much alcohol he was unable to speak and threw up "without a pause" before passing out outside a nearby apartment complex, according to an anguished email his mother sent to university officials. Another student attempted to drink a bottle of Southern Comfort and ended up in the hospital with a blood alcohol content of 0.34 percent, a level that's life-threatening. In 2012, a rugby club member was so intoxicated he told a dormitory resident assistant that the year was 1993.

Those incidents, detailed in reports obtained by The Baltimore Sun in a Maryland Public Information Act request, offer a glimpse at a long-standing problem that has troubled school officials, as well as area residents who must deal with rowdy off-campus parties.

For years, the 22,500-student university, the largest in the Baltimore area, has grappled with the problem — and the sometimes-deadly consequences. In 2007 and 2011, Towson students died in alcohol-related incidents. Now, despite a push by the university for alcohol education programs, school officials acknowledge that dozens of Towson students are taken by ambulance to hospitals each year for alcohol intoxication and hundreds are referred for possible discipline for violating alcohol-related laws.

The issue came into the spotlight again last weekend, when Towson freshman Julia Margaret Ratnaraj, 18, died after falling backward into a sliding glass door and injuring her head and neck. Baltimore County police said that she was at a small off-campus party and that witnesses said she was drinking before the incident, though the role alcohol played in her death, if any, is not yet known.

Towson is hardly the only college to seek ways to curb excessive and underage student drinking; a recent survey of public and private universities in the state showed that almost half of students engage in binge drinking. Towson officials say they have stepped up their alcohol awareness programs and enforcement in recent years, and made other changes to try to contain the problem and keep it from spilling into neighboring communities.

"Towson University has changed remarkably," said Paul Hartman, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations. "That doesn't mean all the problems are solved or even close to being solved. But we have a partner now."

While colleges like Towson educate students about alcohol and punish them for violating policies, they must still balance the rights of students who are usually adults and often do their drinking off-campus.

"I think that the biggest challenge is that we have a society that is very permissive when it comes to alcohol," said Deb Moriarty, Towson's vice president for student affairs. "It's everywhere you go. Children are exposed to it at a very young age. Students come to college with well-developed drinking experiences. Many students are not coming to college and drinking for the first time.

"I think there's a societal [belief] that this is a rite of passage," Moriarty said. "That is a huge uphill battle when the majority of students who live on campus are underage, and you've got a 21-year-old drinking age but a society that expects when you're in college you drink."

Widespread problem

Alcohol-related problems are widespread across Maryland, according to a report released last month by the Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking and Related Problems, a group formed in 2012 that includes Towson University's president and 10 other college presidents. The report did not break out results from individual schools, and it is unclear how Towson compares to other universities on the issue of problem drinking.

The report, based on campus surveys at schools that included the Johns Hopkins University, Loyola University Maryland, Towson, and the University of Maryland, College Park found that 80 percent of students consumed at least one drink during the past year and about 68 percent had had alcohol during the past 30 days. And that has led to a lot of problems.

"Alcohol consumption was related to experiencing a wide variety of negative consequences," the report said. It found that among students who drank during the past year, 34 percent blacked out, 14 percent were hurt or injured, 13 percent drove a car when they had been drinking and 8 percent damaged property.

Some of those troubling consequences were detailed in the Towson University reports obtained by The Sun; they were related to discipline by the school against student organizations, including fraternities and sororities.

In one case in March 2012, for example, a student was found by campus police sitting on the floor of a dorm "amongst vomit," and was semiconscious and incoherent, according to a police report included in the documents. He was taken in an ambulance to St. Joseph Medical Center.

The student, whose name is blacked out in the report, told university officials the next day he had been drinking off campus with his Zeta Beta Tau fraternity brothers when other fraternity members told 11 people they would have to split two "handles" of alcohol — 1.75 liters each — and could not leave before they did so. The fraternity had already been suspended from the university after an incident a couple of weeks earlier in which two other students were hospitalized for alcohol intoxication.

Other penalties ranged from a requirement that members participate in an alcohol awareness class to temporary social probation for the organization.

Zachary McGee, the president of the University System of Maryland Student Council and a Towson University student, said in an email that he has noticed the dangers of binge drinking have gained more attention in recent years.

"As a student, I can tell you that I have seen the problems that heavy drinking can cause, and I know there is room for improvement on this front," he said. "Unfortunately, it is an ugly cultural reality that student leaders are fighting every year."

Community spillover

Residents near the school have dealt with intoxicated students urinating in their yards, vandalizing property and roaming through the neighborhoods in loud groups, said Hartman of the council of community associations. Last year, there were a number of incidents in which drunken students yanked street signs from the ground, and residents felt that they were constantly calling the county's Public Works Department to complain, he said.

In the Burkleigh Square neighborhood near campus, "we've seen it all," resident Christian Estes said. Students start socializing about 11 p.m., even though residents need to wake up early for work. He and others have found broken beer bottles in alleys and been awakened at 2 a.m. by rowdy students.

"It's a clash of lifestyles," Estes said.

At one point, he kept finding paintball caps strewn across his parking pad in the mornings — and had to wash off the paint before going to work.

Estes said residents have worked with Towson officials, landlords, police and county government to address the issues.

"It's gotten better," he said. "It's not perfect."

Hartman has seen more cooperation from the university in addressing students' off-campus behavior.

In the past, he said, "it was hands-off. Once a student was off campus, they felt they had no jurisdiction and no responsibility for student issues." As the school grew rapidly, there wasn't enough housing on campus, and student-occupied rentals proliferated in surrounding neighborhoods, he said.

Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, whose district includes Towson University, said the school's reputation has improved in recent years as it has taken steps to address problem drinking.

To help combat the problem, he supports moving student housing closer to the university, such as the York 101 project, a retail and residential student housing development proposed for York Road near Burke Avenue.

"I am doing everything I can to move student housing as close to Towson University as possible," Marks said. "When students are spread throughout greater Towson, there's a lot less control. And there's a lot less supervision."

'Always had a smile'

Ratnaraj died after falling backward into a sliding glass door at an off-campus party at a friend's apartment, according to Baltimore County police. Those at the party told police that Ratnaraj, who came from Sewell, N.J., had been drinking before the incident, and the 911 call was initially classified as an overdose. Her death was ruled an accident by the state medical examiner.

The final medical examiner's report may not be complete for weeks and toxicology reports are not yet available. Witnesses did not know how much alcohol Ratnaraj had consumed and told police she had not taken any illegal drugs.

About a half-dozen people were at the apartment in the 300 block of E. Joppa Road when police arrived.

Student Matthew Jones is a mentor-liaison in Richmond Hall, where Ratnaraj was one of his mentees. Since school had just begun, he only met her a few times.

"She always had a smile," he said.

Ratnaraj was remembered by her high school counselor as a talented artist who made a difficult decision to attend a different college than her twin sister. She was an honor roll student, the counselor said.

Her family could not be reached for comment.

As word of her death spread last Sunday, students were visibly shaken, some crying, Jones said. A grief counselor visited the tight-knit dorm, he said.

"Everyone knows each other because there's only 90 people," he said.

Tougher interventions

Towson University officials have put in place or expanded a variety of programs in the past several years intended to educate students about the dangers of drinking, including a 21/2-hour online course required for freshmen.

About 50 students were taken to hospitals for alcohol intoxication annually in recent years, but last year the number was about 70, said Moriarty, who attributed the increase to greater awareness of the dangers of alcohol overdose.

The alcohol overdose death of University of Maryland, College Park freshman Daniel Reardon in 2002 helped spur so-called Good Samaritan policies on some campuses that became state law this year. The policy gives amnesty to those who call 911 for someone overdosing on alcohol or drugs if they themselves are involved in underage drinking or other activities that run afoul of the law. It's intended to eliminate any delay that could come from a person fearing they would be prosecuted if they called for help.

Moriarty and Jana Varwig, Towson's associate vice president for student development programs and services, said they focus on teaching students how to help each other when signs of trouble emerge. They also have an alcohol education class that's taken by students who are referred through the judicial process after violating alcohol policies. They have worked with Baltimore County police to shut down so-called "party buses" that take students to drink in Baltimore.

Varwig said officials are reviewing whether to expand the class to more students deemed to be at risk for alcoholism or alcohol abuse. The university currently does not have a method to identify at-risk students outside of the judicial process but may include students who are nearing academic suspension for low grades.

Addressing the problem takes collaboration, say officials with the Baltimore County Combating Underage Drinking Coalition, which includes representatives of the county Health Department, law enforcement, area colleges and other agencies.

Recently, a party tour called "I'm Shmacked" came to Baltimore Soundstage in the city, and a coalition member learned that the tour was targeting Towson University.

Through coordination among school officials, the city liquor board, law enforcement and others, word got out that there would be strict enforcement of ID verification and the turning away of patrons who were already intoxicated.

"Some of the kids on campus just decided to sell their tickets because they knew the word was out that it was going to be a highly enforced event," said Rhondalyn Gross, prevention coordinator with the county's Bureau of Behavioral Health.

Identifying and intervening with at-risk students also is a focus of the Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking and Related Problems.

The group has successfully lobbied for a ban on very high-proof alcohol; it was passed into law this year.

Its recent report recommends stepping up efforts to make access to alcohol more difficult for underage students, screening students for alcohol problems and intervening with high-risk drinkers.

Amelia Arria, an associate professor of behavioral and community health at the University of Maryland and co-leader of the Maryland Collaborative, said researchers have examined risk factors for alcohol abuse and found that access to alcohol, parents letting teens drink and the perception that everyone in college is drinking all play a role.

"All of those things have important relationships with excessive drinking and all are targets for potential interventions," she said.

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