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Students Riot in Response to Alcohol Crackdown; Alcohol and Drug Arrests Rise on College Campuses


May-June 1998

On several campuses near the end of the Spring semester, large groups of students have clashed with police in protests over student alcohol policies and enforcement practices ("Student Rioters Demand the `Right to Party,'" Chronicle of Higher Education, May 15, 1998; Leo Reisberg, "Some Experts Say Colleges Share the Responsibility for the Recent Riots," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 15, 1998; Rene Sanchez, "Campus Alcohol Crackdowns Bring Mix of Rage and Relief," Washington Post, May 10, 1998, p. A3).

Alcohol-related deaths on campuses nationwide in recent years, and great concern about liability and drug and alcohol behavior, have prompted colleges to crack down on underage and irresponsible drinking. However, some students have responded by protesting for the right to drink in familiar areas and during traditional party weekends. "The situations we're dealing with on alcohol keep getting more serious," said Peter McPherson, president of Michigan State University. "No campus can escape this issue."

At Michigan State University in Lansing on May 1, about 2,000 students rioted after administrators announced a ban on alcohol at Munn Field, a popular spot for tailgate parties before football games. Police barred students from entering the field. Students threw bottles and rocks at police standing along a fence surrounding the field, and then toppled the fence. Students began chanting and marched toward the university president's house, but protestors left after discovering he was not home. Protestors eventually poured into city streets, rioting and lighting fires. Police in riot gear confronted the protestors, and several people were treated for tear gas-related injuries (Kit Lively, "At Michigan State, A Protest Escalates Into A Night of Fires, Tear Gas, and Arrests," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 15, 1998; Kathy Barks Hoffman, "Students protest at Michigan State," Daily Gazette (Schenectady, NY), May 3, 1998, p. A3).

At the University of Connecticut at Storrs, hundreds of students rioted in response to new drinking rules established for "University Weekend," the last weekend before final exams. Campus and state police said students threw rocks and bottles at them during parties on Friday and Saturday nights. On Saturday night, April 25, police responded with dogs and pepper spray to break up a party when a bonfire threatened to burn down an apartment unit. The following day, police responded similarly after students placed a burning couch on top of a car. Eighty-seven people were arrested, and thousands of dollars in damage to university property resulted from the melee. "University Weekend" in 1997 was also marred by riots and arrests. "You combine the 21-year-old drinking law and the fact that students don't consider a party a success unless it has alcohol, and you've got a real recipe for problems," said Mark A. Emmert, chancellor of the University of Connecticut (Ben Gose, "At Connecticut's Party Weekend, Days of Music Replaced By Nights of Vandalism," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 15, 1998; "Police and UConn Students Trade Charges After Weekend Melee," New York Times, April 28, 1998, p. A18).

In Athens, Ohio, police arrested 39 people over two nights of rioting by Miami University students who allegedly damaged property and threw cans and bottles at police after bars closed on May 8 and 9. The students were celebrating the end of final exams ("Students at Miami U. in Ohio Clash With Police After Bars Close," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 15, 1998).

On May 3 at Washington State University, police used tear gas to restrain hundreds of students who were throwing beer cans and rocks at officers. The riot was sparked by students who were frustrated by a policy banning alcohol at fraternity social functions. At least 24 officers and 18 students were injured in the five-hour riot, and three people were arrested. Police opened a website to help identify the students who took part in the riot. The website includes photos of students taken during the riots by police and press.

In May of last year, about 1,500 students at the University of Colorado in Boulder rioted in response to police harassment of students that focused on underage drinking enforcement by local police ("CU Students Riot Over Underage Drinking Crackdown," NewsBriefs, May-June 1997).

"The key here to reducing conflict is collaboration -- a coordination of efforts -- by students, administrations, campus, local and/or state police, and affected neighborhoods. By including all, a sincere effort can be made to keep down the numbers of suspensions, expulsions, injuries and strained relations that are sometimes by products of student revel," said Nicholas Pastore, research fellow in police policy for the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, Hew Haven (CT) office, and former chief of police of New Haven. "The more that internal understanding and communication take place between concerned agencies, the less often the police will have to deal with external assaults that manifest when there is no dialogue."

College administrators are beginning to examine the problem of campus alcohol abuse and suggest solutions. In Virginia, a 38-member task force on alcohol consumption by state college students has proposed a requirement to notify parents of students who drink excessively. The panel is being led by Virginia Attorney General Mark L. Earley (R) and includes university presidents, law enforcement officials, parents and students. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released a report on May 14 with nine recommendations to address alcohol-related issues on college campuses (Jacqueline L. Salmon, "Tactics Debated in Battle Against College Drinking," Washington Post, April 21, 1998, p. B1; Darrell S. Pressley, "MIT group recommends steps to curb binge drinking," Boston Herald, May 15, 1998, p. 23).

On May 10, the American Medical Association (AMA) announced an $18 million campaign to curb alcohol problems on college campuses. "Our aim is to find out what works on these campuses and then use it as a model for the rest of the country," said AMA President Percy Wootton (Mary Houlihan-Skilton, "AMA leads effort to attack alcohol abuse on campus," Chicago Sun-Times, May 11, 1998).

Arrests for alcohol and drug violations on college and university campuses rose for a fifth consecutive year in 1996, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education survey. Alcohol arrests rose 10% and drug arrests rose 5%. In 1996, there were 16,237 arrests for alcohol violations and 7,060 arrests for drug violations. Michigan State University lead all U.S. universities with 574 alcohol-related arrests in 1996. The University of California at Berkeley had the greatest number of drug arrests, with 19. University of California police have authority to make drug arrests off campus where there are urban open-air drug markets ("Drug, alcohol violations rise on college campuses," Houston Chronicle, May 3, 1998, p. 9A; William H. Honon, "Campus Alcohol and Drug Arrests Rose in '96, Survey Says," New York Times, May 3, 1998).

Chronicle of Higher Education - 1255 23rd St., NW, Washington, DC 20037, Tel: (202) 466-1000, Fax: (202) 452-1033, Web: <>.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley - Department of Law, 101 North Eighth St., Richmond, VA 23219, Tel: (804) 786-2071, Fax: (804) 786-1991.

MIT working group on dangerous drinking is co-chaired by Mark Goldstein, chief of Pediatrics & Student Health Services, MIT Medical Department, 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139, Tel: (617) 253-1505, and Philip Sharp, head of the Deparment of Biology, Center for Cancer Research, Room E17-529, MIT, Cambridge, MA 02139, Tel: (617) 253-6421.

AMA Office of Alcohol and Other Drugs - 515 N. State Street, Chicago, IL 60610, Tel: (312) 464-4532.