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Archive for Sunday, March 22, 2009

Room to improve seen on alcohol issues

Community notes more to be done to curb binge drinking, sexual assaults

March 22, 2009

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• A 39-year-old Lawrence woman reported that she was raped Saturday night about 11:15 p.m.

She told Lawrence police she had been drinking at a party earlier in the night and had no recollection of how she got home. She reported that she awoke partially undressed and unaware of what happened.

Lawrence Police Sgt. Susan Hadl said police identified a 42-year-old suspect in the incident. The suspect and the victim are known to each other, she said. Police interviewed the suspect shortly before midnight.

"We have learned that there possibly were inappropriate sexual relations," Hadl said. "We're still in the midst of investigating to what extent."

Hadl said police would be forwarding the report to the district attorney's office.

From its link to several sexual assault cases to the death of a Kansas University freshman, alcohol has come under scrutiny in Lawrence in recent weeks.

It remains an issue where few changes have been made to limit its effect.

“It is very difficult to get a handle on what really works with kids. Whether we are talking about students in junior high or high school, we don’t really know what works,” said Sarah Jane Russell, executive director of GaDuGi SafeCenter, a nonprofit organization that provides support services for sexual assault survivors.

She believes a roundtable discussion with community leaders is needed to address the issues of alcohol abuse and sexual assault.

“It could look at what has worked historically, where we want to go with messages to our kids and how we can make use of the resources we have available,” Russell said.

Alcohol abuse is an epidemic in Lawrence, said John Drees, a community education specialist for Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

Drees, who speaks to Kansas University students about how drinking can land them in the emergency room, says education isn’t the issue.

Students know the dangers of drinking too much, he said. Instead, there needs to be a cultural shift away from the pressure to binge drink.

It’s a point that was driven home with the death of 19-year-old Jason Wren. The KU freshman was killed by alcohol, said his father, Jay Wren. The teen was found dead inside Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity after a night of drinking multiple margaritas, 10 or 12 beers and whiskey.

At the university level, Marlesa Roney, KU vice provost for student success, said there won’t be any immediate changes in light of Wren’s death.

“It’s one of those things, we are always focused on what we can do to improve a program and there is a continuous review process,” she said. “But there are no changes at this point.”

Alcohol and sexual assaults

Earlier this month, community leaders pointed to alcohol abuse as a major contributor in sexual assaults. An investigation by the Lawrence Journal-World and 6News found that 450 adult sexual assaults occurred in Lawrence in the past five years.

Studies show that alcohol is used by either the perpetrator or victim in 75 percent to 90 percent of all sexual assault cases, said Kathy Rose-Mockry, who is program director for KU’s Emily Taylor Women’s Resource Center.

Rose-Mockry said a strong network of community organizations is already in place to address sexual assault issues.

That’s a reason why the Community Health Improvement Project board decided not to form a task force to look at the issue, Executive Director Janelle Martin said.

“We look at if there’s a gap in services that isn’t being provided and then bring some players together to try and fill the gap,” Martin said. “At this point in time it appears there is counseling, there are resources people can go to.”

The issue of alcohol abuse, however, does need attention, Martin said.

Among the work already being done in the area is the recent formation of The New Tradition Coalition of Lawrence. The group started about a year ago and draws from representatives at KU, the health care industry, law enforcement, the bar industry and parents.

The group is focused on what messages it can send to parents about underage drinking. Shortly after Wren’s death, the organization posted on its Web site information about alcohol poisoning.

“Our message remains the same,” said Jen Brinkerhoff, a director with the Lawrence-based drug and alcohol counseling center DCCCA. “It is terrible that it happened and it is even more reason to get parents to realize they need to talk to their children and that talking needs to happen early and it needs to happen often.”

What will work

What has made a difference, Drees said, are heavily funded mass media campaigns. He pointed to the TheTruth.com ads that worked to combat the glamorized images tobacco companies associated with smoking.

Several health officials said laws already on the books, such as the one handing out a $1,000 fine for those who host minors that are consuming alcohol, could also be better enforced.

Brinkerhoff also points to the blind eye that is turned during tailgating before KU football games, where intoxication is rampant.

“If as an adult you send the example of this is what you do and this is how you act, how do you expect (children) to act any differently?” she said.

The university doesn’t have a staff person dedicated to alcohol prevention. But Roney said residence assistants, management in student housing and wellness educators are all on the front lines of the issue.

“You’ve heard it takes a village; well, it really takes a university on this one,” she said.

Alcohol education is part of KU student orientation. For those who violate rules in residence halls, an alcohol education program is required. And Student Union Activities is placing a heavy emphasis on alcohol-free programming.

A few years ago, the university implemented a social norms campaign that emphasized the majority of KU students drink moderately or not at all.

“For someone going out and getting blitzed, it didn’t seem to make a difference,” Roney said.

Whether it’s alcohol or sexual abuse, Russell said prevention programs can run up against the more ingrained messages that family and peers send. She still believes they are worth a try.

“Even though we know the success rates for social norms campaigns might not be off-the-chart successful, we still have to keep trying to find out how we can reach students of all ages,” she said.

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