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BSU looks to culture change to combat binge drinking

BEMIDJI--BSU campus leaders are attempting to break a pattern of alcohol-related incidents at the school by focusing not on policy, but on culture. Thousands of green rubber bracelets that read: "S.O.S. SAVE OUR STUDENTS," wrap around wrists acro...

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Thousands of green rubber bracelets that read: "S.O.S. SAVE OUR STUDENTS," wrap around wrists across campus as BSU looks to curb binge drinking and increase safety on the campus. (Submitted photo)
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BEMIDJI-BSU campus leaders are attempting to break a pattern of alcohol-related incidents at the school by focusing not on policy, but on culture.

Thousands of green rubber bracelets that read: "S.O.S. SAVE OUR STUDENTS," wrap around wrists across campus. A university-endorsed video encouraging students to use the buddy system was shown at freshman orientation and in some classrooms. And like no time in recent memory, a sense of community washes over the people here, leaders say-nine months after a student's hypothermia death gripped the lakeside university.

"As unfortunate as that tragedy was, our campus came together as it never has before on alcohol use and student safety," said Jay Passa, BSU health education coordinator and a member of a task force that brainstormed solutions including the bracelets and the video. "I want to be careful with my words here, but some good has come out of it."

Passa said a new committee geared toward implementing some of the task force's harder-to-enact ideas-among them a low-cost shuttle service that would loop between campus and downtown-should begin meeting this fall, though no dates are set. (The committee will likely retain members from the task force, he said.)

In the meantime, the university is hoping its emphasis on community will reign in the binge drinking culture that has soaked into the fabric of BSU and so many universities. "It's such an intricate part of the college experience traditionally," Passa said, "that it's going to be a tough road to hoe."

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Brittany Hull, Student Senate president and task force member, has visited classrooms during the first three weeks of school, playing the "buddy" video and distributing bracelets.

It's early and not yet cold enough to take a life, but Hull, a senior, said she has noticed togetherness among students when she has gone out.

"I don't see anyone alone," she said.

The task force started meeting last year, not long after 20-year-old Sandra Lommen died the morning of Dec. 10, having fallen into a creek as she walked home alone from a party. Where she was discovered, showing signs of hypothermia and intoxication, the first-year nursing student was a mile and a half from her dorm.

"That can't happen," BSU President Richard Hanson said last month. "We failed that kid."

Six weeks after Lommen was found, and one week after another student, Hannah Rolschau, was hospitalized after a similar incident, Hanson invited the campus community to a summit that would blend brainstorming with grieving, sorrow with hope. That night, Jan. 29, Hanson announced the formation of the task force.

Reaching out

During the spring semester, about 25 people met at 7 a.m. every Wednesday-an assemblage of students, staff, administrators and law enforcement. They looked at strategies used by other schools and tried to incorporate what would work best at BSU. In May, they submitted 38 recommendations to the president.

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"We know other campuses are watching us to see how we do," Passa said.

Some of the recommendations require time and money the school doesn't keep in its back pocket. The task force asked for additional funding for student events at BSU, a dry campus. It called for more training and better communication.

But they know young people will drink.

More than before, the university is teaching students about Minnesota's medical amnesty law, which exempts intoxicated minors from legal citation if they seek medical attention for themselves or their friends. "They can reach out," Passa said.

Relying on a cultural shift and a heightened responsibility among students, the university said, does not mean doubling down on a campus that lost one student last winter, almost two.

This is a different campus, the university said-the first evidence of that came on Jan. 29.

Hanson wasn't sure how many people would show up to that Thursday night summit-he feared there would be none, he said, until he saw 500.

Related Topics: BEMIDJI STATE UNIVERSITY
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