Photo credit: Graham Jaeger by Robert Connor.
By Reid Cooper, Robert Connor, Ian Brundige and Jeremy Konzen
Passing around a handle of cheap vodka with four other guys on the roof of his former fraternity Alpha Tau Omega is the last thing Gunter Jaeger, 20, a DePauw sophomore whose friends call “Graham” remembers from the evening of Nov. 29, 2018.
“We went out to the sundeck,” Jaeger says. “I really didn't think anything much of it, except I didn't really want to be out there. I knew it was gonna be a drinking event. Every time I said I didn't want to go out there, they were all like, ‘No go out there, they expect you to be out there.’”
At 5:29 p.m., Jaeger was hospitalized with a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) of .471, a “fatal dose for most people,” according to Aware Awake Alive, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent alcohol poisoning among teens and young adults.
In the aftermath, Jaeger is recovering while sitting at the center of controversy: Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and the DePauw administration have come to loggerheads over how the university manages campus drinking, thought by many students to be overly punitive.
On May 4, several parents of DePauw students met with administrators to discuss how to create a campus social culture that doesn’t overly penalize students, The DePauw reported. Students may be fearful of walking home from a party because they don’t want to be stopped and punished by campus police. And many students and parents don't agree with the application of medical amnesty, which allows students and organizations to call for help in the event of underage or excessive drinking without further sanctions.
“The situation really opened my eyes on how DePauw has done a lot of things in order to try to control alcohol and stuff,” Jaeger says. However with around 70 percent of students involved in Greek life, “it doesn't always work.”
While pressures from fraternity and sorority life played a role in Jaeger’s story, students often drink too much for other reasons, too.
“It’s easy to be like ‘Oh, that’ll never happen to me!’ And then it happens to you. That’s exactly what happened to me,” says Karin Roberts, a DePauw University junior music major from Evansville.
Roberts, a cellist, started drinking hard liquor at the School of Music’s annual Earth, Wind and Fire event on September 21, 2018. (“September" is one of the soul group’s most famous songs.) She met some friends later at a frat party and drank some more, while playing a drinking came called Jumanji.
DePauw University Solutions Journalism Students did a deep give into the campus drinking issue that vexes American college campuses, including theirs in Greencastle, Indiana. The Spring 2019 class was led by Pulliam Professor Deborah Douglas.
Public Safety officers saw her stumbling home with a friend and breathalyzed her. She says she blew a .24. The point at which a person is sent to hospital for alcohol poisoning is .25. She proceeded home and started vomiting everywhere. The friend who was with her created a text chain and asked other friends what to do? "Call an ambulance" was the answer. Afterward, Roberts was put into pretrial diversion where she took part in DePauw’s Community Standards Process.
Roberts and Jaeger are two of 19 DePauw students hospitalized for alcohol poisoning this school year. College students have even died because they drank too much: 1,825 college students die from situations linked to alcohol, including car crashes, according to the National on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
How can drinking get so bad students land in the hospital?
Well, alcohol depresses the nerves that control involuntary actions like breathing and the gag reflex, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Without having control over these actions, the likelihood of someone to stop breathing or choke goes up when drinking, and the individual can suffer irreversible damage.
Binge drinking, defined by the institute as anything above a .08 BAC , is even more dangerous because increased effects considered primary (things happen to the drinker) and secondary (things that happen to the people around the drinker) effects, according to Linda Major, assistant vice chancellor at Nebraska University-Lincoln.
“So for the drinker, it might be that you fell and hurt yourself; you ran into legal complications, you suffered academic challenges,” Major says, “those things that happened to me as a result of my drinking. Another one would be blackout drinking.”
“Conversely, secondary effects [include] I hit somebody, I engaged in inappropriate sexual contact, you know, things that might happen when somebody is intoxicated,” Major says.
A Solutions Journalism class survey reveals:
- 54 percent of students said they believe binge drinking is five or six drinks in a two-hour period.
- 20 percent said they believe binge drinking is seven or more drinks in a two-hour period.
- In reality, it is only four drinks for most women and five for most men over a two- to three-hour period.
BAC is most commonly used as a measure of intoxication for legal or medical purposes, and is usually expressed as a percentage of ethanol units in the blood. A BAC of .10 means there is one part alcohol for every 1,000 parts of blood in the body, according to Stanford University’s Office of Alcohol Policy and Education. For the same number of drinks, BAC can change depending on certain factors such as drinking habits, gender, weight and genetics.
The rate at which someone’s body eliminates alcohol is also important to consider, according to the Duke University Alcohol Pharmacology Education Project. Because the human body processes alcohol so slowly, a person’s BAC will remain elevated well after alcohol consumption stops.
Duke also provides a detailed explanation of how and why alcohol affects youths, such as college students, more severely than adults. Studies show adolescents are less sensitive to intoxicating effects of alcohol like impaired balance and coordination, meaning they can experience higher BACs before becoming incapacitated.
But younger people are more sensitive to blackouts and neurotoxicity, a process that kills brain cells, leading to potential long-term damage of memory and cognitive ability, creating a dangerous combination.
“The last thing I remember is sitting down to play [a] drinking game,” Roberts says. “That’s where my memory stops.”
While the DePauw Office of Alcohol Initiatives conducts a number of programs explaining all of this, including TIPS training and prevention, and first-year orientation, after being hospitalized, Jaeger and Roberts emphasize the importance of those lessons.
“I never thought I'd even become close to that, but I guess when you hear people give an alcohol initiatives talk and actually train you on it, you should take it seriously,” Jaeger says.
“Actually experiencing [a hospitalization] is what made me change,” Roberts said, “and I don’t really want people to have to get to that point; it’s scary. Be careful. It can happen to anybody.”