Two student alcohol deaths revive discussion of ‘bystander’ responsibility

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November 7th, 2014

Lincoln, NE – In September, an 18-year-old University of Nebraska-Lincoln student died of alcohol poisoning.

[audio:https://kvnonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/student-alcohol.mp3]

Members of his fraternity allegedly acquired gallons of beer and vodka for a freshman drinking party.
In October, a popular football player at Nebraska Wesleyan University was killed after leaving a traveling party bus after apparently drinking heavily.

“This doesn’t happen just once or twice. It’s a recurring event,” said Nichole Carritt, the executive director of Project Extra Mile. The group advocates for public policy that promotes responsible drinking. “There are things that we can do as a community to help protect and prevent these types of occurrences and we need to do it. It may not be the popular choice, but it’s important.”

In recent years advocates for responsible alcohol use have emphasized the importance of what’s called ‘bystander intervention” in the hopes friends and family will step in to help someone under the influence make a potentially life-saving choice.

Photo Illustration (Bill Kelly, NET News)

Photo Illustration (Bill Kelly, NET News)

Geri Cotter, an associate dean of students who oversees alcohol education programs at Nebraska Wesleyan University says at its simplest it’s a matter of “watching out for each other.” (Read NWU’s campus Alcohol Policy)

“If you see the individual engaging in behavior that you see might be risky, the idea is to intervene,” Cotter said. That includes making a direct approach to get the person to stop drinking for the evening or steering them away from

doing something that could do them harm while drunk, from driving a car to leaving with a stranger.
One example statistics show is the most effective and socially accepted approach is a designated driver. Traffic safety studies verify that using what’s commonly referred to as “the DD” continues to increase.

“That’s one that we’ve actually had success in changing student attitudes,” Cotter said. “It pleases me a lot. I am just delighted.”

The two student deaths reminded Cotter and her counterparts at other area colleges there is much work to be done.

The Wesleyan campus took the death of student Maury Lorence especially hard.

According to the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Department, Lorence, an elementary education major, was one of several passengers drinking on a traveling party bus rented by another student. He reportedly spent the evening drinking in the bus, as is allowed by state laws regulating limousine operators.

Poster from Nebraska Wesleyan's "bystander intervention" education program. (Courtesy NWU)

Poster from Nebraska Wesleyan’s “bystander intervention” education program. (Courtesy NWU)

The limo stopped at a highway truck plaza on Lincoln’s west side. When the group pulled away, Lorence’s friends on the bus didn’t notice he’d been left behind. The 911 center got a call that someone was walking along the Interstate. By the time a sheriff’s deputy arrived Lorence had been struck and killed.

Peter Armstrong, dean of students at Wesleyan, called Lorence “a wonderful young man. A true student/athlete.”
Devastated by the death, Armstrong said the school’s tight-knit student body is “reflecting differently on the role alcohol plays in their lives or the lives of their friends.”

“Unfortunately the should of, would have, could have questions that come up, there aren’t really good answers, those are brought to the surface by our students,” Armstrong said.

The case of Lorence, where there may not have been sufficient steps taken to keep track of who was safely making the return trip home on the party bus, became a gut-wrenching reminder of the type of shared responsibility in social drinking Wesleyan has been trying to communicate to its student body.

The bystander intervention that has been part of Wesleyan’s alcohol education program places some responsibility on people who want to do the right thing when a friend is at risk.

“They get the concept but it’s how do I do it? That is the next step,” Cotter said. She says the university wants to make clear to students “you are better off saying something than nothing if you are concerned about a behavior that your friend is engaging in.”

A set of posters placed around campus encapsulates the concept. Photos show college-age models engaged in risky drinking activity, from getting behind the wheel of a car to a young woman leaving a party with a stranger.
In one, a partier literally pours liquor from the bottle into a girl’s mouth. People watching have t-shirts imprinted with phrases they are thinking but not saying aloud: “Dude! That’s enough!” and “this could end badly.”

“It’s demonstrating situations when you might use bystander intervention and giving students some of the phrases they might use,” Cotter said. “It’s giving them the language. It’s also telling them you don’t have to be perfect with this.”

The message was brought home by Lorence’s death.

“Maury’s accident was such a freak thing. It was hard to come to terms with,” said Sarah Berke, a senior communications major at Wesleyan.

At 21-years-old, Sarah said she considers herself a responsible drinker. For her best friend’s bachelorette party in a few weeks, she had already made arrangements for a party bus so the group would not be drinking and driving. The circumstances of Lorence’s death made her reconsider whether she’d taken enough steps to protect herself and her friends from harm.

“I really cracked down because I said this is not going to happen again,” Berke said. “Now we have bus buddies, and we are going to count off like kindergarteners because I don’t want something else to happen on Wesleyan’s campus.”

The death on the UNL campus put in sharp focus the consequences of students not just failing to intervene on a friends behalf but making decisions that could lead to a tragedy.

In September, 18-year-old Clayton Real of Grafton, Nebraska, a freshman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, died of what an autopsy revealed to be alcohol poisoning.

According to court documents, 22-year-old Ross Reynolds bought a keg of beer and allegedly delivered it to a house a couple miles from the UNL campus. A party at the house had been set up by the Farmhouse fraternity freshman social chair, Thomas Trueblood. Witnesses reported under-aged drinkers had access to the beer as well as vodka and whiskey.

Real, who was also a Type 1 diabetic, passed out at the party. He was taken back to the Farmhouse fraternity, where he was found dead in the morning. The coroner’s report listed acute ethanol intoxication as the cause of death.

The Lancaster county attorney decided the case warranted felony charges. Trueblood, Reynolds and two other members of the fraternity, Cory Foland and Vance Hayer, if convicted, face felony penalties. Procuring alcohol to a minor which resulted in injury or death was signed into law just three years ago. If convicted of the Class 3 felony they could face a jail sentence of 30 days.

All four of the men charged have not yet entered a plea. As with all criminal cases, their innocence is assumed as the cases proceed.

Part of the Wesleyan alcohol awareness program hammers home the consequences of making poor decisions while drinking. The tougher laws, and the apparent willingness of the county attorney to employ them, provide additional evidence that the repercussions can dramatically affect a student’s life.

“Perhaps reminding them of the penalties and particularly if harm came to the individual is critical,” Cotter said. “I think students need to understand that they are liable if something happens to that individual.”

NWU Dean of Students Armstrong has heard from students who have given serious consideration to their behavior. “I think it has raised (questions) for people. What would I have done differently to avoid what did happen that evening. How do I change my behavior? Are there things I can do to assist others?”

There’s been some good news. Nebraska’s 2013 Young Adult Alcohol Opinion Survey found the number of full-time college students driving while drunk dropped almost by half in the past three years. Such a significant drop has been attributed, in part, to the use of and respect for designated drivers who remain sober in order to provide safe transportation home to those who don’t want to drink and drive.

One disturbing trend underscores the need for caution, according to responsible drinking advocates. The Young Adult Survey also revealed the number of teenage students who are binge drinking increased steadily over the past three years. Nearly half of those surveyed had binged in the previous month.

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