Emergency personnel respond to an alcohol poisoning call in the courtyard of the Unit 1 dorms at the University of California, in Berkeley, early Tuesday, Aug. 25. The call came in as a possible alcohol poisoning case involving a 20-year-old male who was vomiting. Photo: David Yee
Emergency personnel respond to an alcohol poisoning call at a UC Berkeley dorm in 2015. Photo: David Yee
Emergency personnel respond to an alcohol poisoning call at a UC Berkeley dorm in 2015. Photo: David Yee

Despite official statistics suggesting 2016 was a banner year for alcohol abuse during the first weeks of the UC Berkeley school year, anecdotes from first responders and student leaders suggest otherwise.

In early September, the state bureau of Alcohol and Beverage Control released figures for the first two weekends of the school year that indicated alcohol-related incidents spiked 110% this year, compared with 2004 when the ABC bureau first started collecting data. And this year’s total of 551 incidents is up 30% from 2015.

The stats are based on a collaboration between the Berkeley Police Department, ABC and other law-enforcement agencies that is funded through a grant. The annual effort began in 2004.

Unlike previous years, where new records appear in certain citation categories such as ‘open container violations’ or ‘minors in possession of alcohol,’ 2016 set records across the board. For example, in 2016 law enforcement handed out 36 citations for ‘furnishing alcohol to minors,’ beating the 2006 record of 32.

The UC Police reported a slight uptick in hospital transports to 15, from 11 in August. But September, at least through Sept. 21, declined to 16 from 19 in 2015, according to Sergeant Sabrina Reich.

The Berkeley Police Department acknowledged that the increase was likely due to the number of officers involved.

University officials told Berkeleyside via a written statement that UC Berkeley has been trying to compile its own data but has run into problems because of various federal privacy statutes, and the number of government agencies involved.

Students involved with efforts to curtail excessive alcohol consumption did not see this as a particularly troubling year in terms of alcohol consumption.

“I don’t believe that there was a higher level of drinking this year and the increased citations very well might be an increase in policing and not because there’s was an actual increase,” Isabella Brandes told Berkeleyside. Brandes, a senior, is a coordinator at the Party Safe at Cal program.

I also think that it’s important to remember that significantly more students are coming in this year. There were about 1,000 new students and it’s really about the first-year students’ experience, and their drinking-related harm. One factor: for the first time, I saw a police officer on every corner of Channing Circle.”

A firefighter agrees with Brandes’ assessment.  

“This year wasn’t as bad as some years past,” said Kristin Tucker, who has been a paramedic and firefighter for 14 years.

It’s still not good, but compared with a couple years ago, maybe three years ago, it was better. But it still takes a toll on the 911 system, uses a lot of our resources,” she said. 

Yet, unquestionably, excessive alcohol consumption has become a perennial issue at the university — and at campuses across the country. Student groups, city-university partnerships and community groups have become more  involved with the issue over the years.

Brandes said she observed a troubling culture of alcohol consumption as a freshman.

“It was a huge shock to me, that there was this very preventable kind of harm,” she said. Since then, she has worked to address the problem.

Brandes also said it’s not a uniform problem — that it’s worth remembering the university has 36,000 students. Because of its size and diversity, some communities — and student groups — have a more acute problem than others, though she declined to point to any specific group or organization.

Berkeleyside has reported on rape and sexual assaults that have allegedly occurred during the new semester, including two within a few days of one another — though it’s not clear at publication time whether there was alcohol involved. On Sept. 10, there were three sexual assaults reported at the “Mad Decent Block Party” at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre.

The city and university have partnered to help curb excessive, underage student alcohol consumption through a program called First Eight.

But it’s not clear what role city officials play. A Berkeleyside California Public Records Act request produced 63 pages of documents related to the city’s work with the First Eight program. The vast majority of the documents released were email messages containing information about meetings between city and university officials — and in some cases minutes of those meetings — but did not include budget documents or other records concerning the project’s scope.

City spokesman Matthai Chakko referred Berkeleyside’s questions about First Eight to university personnel.

Paramedics load a patient into an ambulance during a response to an alcohol poisoning call at Freeborn Hall in the Unit 1 dorms at the University of California, in Berkeley, on Sunday, August 23. The call came in as a possible alcohol poisoning case involving a 19-year-old female in the bathroom of Freeborn Hall. Photo: David Yee
Paramedics load a patient into an ambulance during a response to an alcohol poisoning call at UC Berkeley in 2015. Photo: David Yee
Paramedics load a patient into an ambulance during a response to an alcohol poisoning call at UC Berkeley in 2015. Photo: David Yee

University campaign risk manager Andrew Goldblatt told Berkeleyside in a written statement that the program is based on a similar one at Pennsylvania State University, which he claims has been successful. He says that students, university officials and city staffers meet every Wednesday to discuss safety planning for the coming weekend.

Goldblatt says that this year the school has launched another new initiative called the Responsible Bystander Policy aimed at encouraging students to help colleagues experiencing alcohol or drug-related emergencies to get help.

Other city officials, such as firefighter Tucker, have developed programs to attack the problem as well. Tucker runs Every Bear Goes Home, which conducts presentations for students about sexual assault, binge drinking, and violent crime, among other topics. Tucker said she finds that reiterating her message to slow down and not binge-drink is a common theme — and having a “brutally honest” conversation helps the students get a little more comfortable and open up where  “they trust us to a point.”

“Freshman come up and are away from home for the first time, and really go for it,” she said. “It usually doesn’t end up well for them. Rush week is supposed to be alcohol-free, but I don’t know how that works because we still pick up a bunch of kids.”

Incoming UC Berkeley students attend a mandatory alcohol education program. However, despite the university’s efforts to curb underage and dangerous drinking on campus, some alumni believe that the school could and should do more.

“We’d like to see more consequences for the students,” said UC Berkeley alum Phil Bokovoy. “If you look at the patterns of violations … The university could basically take legal action to shut repeat violators down. The best thing we can do is make an example of one or two, which other universities have done, quite successfully.”

According to the university’s website for fraternity and sorority disciplinary status, one organization has been subjected to disciplinary action in August of this year, and none for September.

In December 2015, Jeffrey Thomas Engler, 22, from San Leandro, died after falling from a significant height at the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity building. Police reported  that alcohol appeared to have been a contributing factor.

After two deaths at UC Berkeley fraternities in 2014, Berkeley began taking steps to improve the safety and oversight of group housing such as fraternities. The CalGreeks community’s Interfraternity Council also put additional measures in place to curb the impacts of drinking, such as banning alcohol stronger than 20% in common areas and imposing escalating fees for violations.

In a statement released by the city in 2015,  it was noted that “95% of all injuries and deaths at Fraternities nationwide are alcohol- or drug-related.”

“It’s a forever ongoing issues, it’s never going to be completely eradicated, we’re doing our best to keep it under control,” Tucker said. “I want to stop losing kids.”

Alcohol likely contributed to Berkeley fraternity death (12.21.15)
Young man found dead at Berkeley fraternity (12.19.15)
Alcohol at Cal: Authorities report record arrests, tickets (09.10.15)
Berkeley neighbors take on ‘noisy and drunken parties’ (05.05.15)
UC Berkeley student ID’d as Southside fatality, died from head trauma (12.22.14)
20-year-old man found dead in Southside Berkeley (12.20.14)
Man, 20, found dead after party at Berkeley frat house (11.09.14)
Op-ed: Cal should take down beer and athletics billboard (11.03.14)
Student drinking at Cal taxes Berkeley paramedics (11.12.13)

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