In its Winter 1999 issue, Parent Times featured an article on underage and binge drinking around the University of Iowa campus. It was a serious problem, the article noted. The University had established the Stepping Up Project, with Julie Phye as its head, to see if solutions could be found. But city officials and many people on campus believed that nothing could be done about the problem. The article listed addresses of the City Council and the Iowa City mayor.
Theyve been hearing from University of Iowa parents ever since.
Your interest in this issue and growing pressure on the council from local citizens led to several initiatives under consideration by the City Council, a great deal of discussion among students, bar owners, city officials, and Iowa City citizens, and many initiatives by Stepping Up.
As Parent Times went to press, the City Council was considering two ordinances, one of which would bring Iowa Citys maximum fine for underage drinking and other violations of the citys ordinances up to the level of state law. If that passes, the maximum fine would increase from $100, the current city maximum, to $500, the maximum allowed by state law. That would allow judges to fine either drinkers or bartenders up to $500 per infraction.
The second proposed ordinance contains a number of new prohibitions directed at bar owners and bartenders:
"This last change is quite significant because it gives the City Council the power to conduct hearings and levy fines or progressive penalties on bar owners who fail to comply with state or local alcohol laws," Phye says. "A civil violation is not a criminal offense, and therefore stays out of court. Instead, the council conducts a hearing. A preponderance of evidence is all that is required for civil prosecution, in contrast to the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal matters. This action will most affect those (bar owners) who are lax in checking IDs and/or serving alcohol to people who are intoxicated."
University students have been expressing their feelings about the proposed changes at hearings and City Council meetings, in letters to the editor of The Daily Iowan, and in an Internet survey conducted by University of Iowa Student Government (UISG).
More than half of the students who responded to the survey drink alcohol at least once a week, and about one in three drinks at least five beers, shots, or mixed drinks every time. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has given grants to Stepping Up, defines abusive or "binge" drinking as five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more for women at least once in the previous two weeks.
About 86 percent of the 1,300 students who replied to the survey said they didnt think that current proposals would decrease the levels of dangerous or underage drinking in Iowa City. Twenty-four percent of respondents said they believed Iowa City should encourage more alcohol-free, late-night activities to discourage binge drinking.
The complete student responses are available in PDF format on the UISG web site at www.uiowa.edu/~uisg. They range from profanity to reasoned arguments and marketing strategies.
"Its nice to be able to go out, have some fun with your friends, dance, have a few drinks to relax and forget about the daily rigors of school life for a night," a student wrote.
Another concurred. "Its an immediate happiness and it balances the stress that I get from school, work, and money concerns."
To a question about what the University could do to stem abusive drinking, a student replied, "Nothing. Are you really so arrogant to suggest we can control this?"
Other responses varied from "Kick a student out of UI permanently on the first violation" to "If you make the bars 21 (limit admission to students 21 or over) you take kids out of a controlled environment, which is more dangerous than anything else. Kids who want to drink will drink, those who dont wont."
Parents will see frequent references to students homes and parents in the responses. As one wrote, "Our parents drank that way, heck our new president drank that way when they were our age, and they seemed to turn out (all right)."
Another said, "We need help from parents who take an active interest in their childs behavior."
A third student writes, "I dont think we should gauge what happens in Iowa City on this study because it doesnt take into account tolerance that is built up since, for some, high school and middle school."
Thats one of several assertions by students that they can drink well over the binge drinking definitions with no problem. One said he/she could have five beers in an hour and still test under the legal limits for driving while impaired.
Andy Stoll, former UISG president, believes ordinances will not do any good unless late-night nonalcohol activities are made available where students can reach them.
"Change the atmosphere of the downtown area," he told City Council members. "Right now, the perception is that its a haven for student drinking. It doesnt have to be that."
Another student, senior Marquez Brown, says he fears that the City Councils proposed actions will create a problem where it doesnt exist. He says he works at the Village Inn until 3 a.m., "and I see more adults far more intoxicated (than young people). And I dont see them being pulled over in front of my apartment, I see my friends."
During 2000, 900 people were charged with underage drinking by police during 972 visits to 60 bars and nightclubs in the city. Recently, police conducted a two-day sting that resulted in 99 arrests for underage drinking.
So What Has Changed?
The biggest change from the 1999 article is the fact that questions about what the City Council, the University, and individual students should do about abusive drinking are now discussed almost daily in the media. Another change is the number of non-alcohol activities available to students.
Stepping Up is continuing its efforts to schedule more non-alcohol activities on weekends and late at night. It has sponsored non-alcohol tailgates at home football games, late-night activities in the Field House, and dances in the Iowa Memorial Union. It also helps student groups to plan non-alcohol events.
In February, for example, it gave $300 to the University of Iowa chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi so the fraternity could have a style show and dance. The fraternity has participated in a neighborhood cleanup, mentored young black men, and helped the local chapter of the national Big Brother program.
Through such incremental changes and improvements in Iowa City ordinances, Stepping Up hopes to change the culture that supports abusive drinking. You can review its efforts in detail at www.uiowa.edu/~stepping.
By Anne Tanner