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A 20-year-old Fredonia State College student almost drank himself to death two weekends ago, downing a quart of Southern Comfort and a few beers in less than three hours. His blood-alcohol level was in the "fatal range," over 0.40.

The near-fatality sparked a campus-wide dialogue after college President Dennis L. Hefner sent a two-page letter to all students, parents and faculty members pleading for changes in attitudes toward drinking.

But the incident wasn't an isolated one:

Eight to 10 Fredonia State students are rushed to the hospital each semester for excessive drinking, Hefner wrote in his letter. That's close to 20 students per year getting so drunk they have to be hospitalized.

Buffalo State College officials estimate that they dismiss three to four students each year because of alcohol-related problems.

So far this semester -- and it's still September -- the University at Buffalo has suspended three students for alcohol-related behavior considered a "clear and present danger to themselves or others."

One of the students was an underaged, intoxicated driver of a vehicle filled with other students. Another had provided alcohol to minors.

"We're no better or no worse than anyone else," said Dennis R. Black, vice president for student affairs at UB. "We have not lost a student here to alcohol poisoning. Have we come close? Unfortunately, we have."

Fredonia came extremely close, according to Hefner. Doctors working on the unidentified student made several urgent calls to the college in an attempt
to contact his parents. Hefner believes they wanted to call to inform them their son was going to die.

"We were getting tell-tale signs that the student wouldn't make it," he said.

The student, who has not been identified, did recover, and has returned to class, although he faces university disciplinary charges. University officials, after speaking with him and several of his friends, pieced together the following scenario.

A 21-year-old fellow resident of Disney Hall purchased the alcohol for his underage friend. The older student, who faces legal and university charges, said he thought the younger student was planning to nurse the quart over several months.

Instead, beginning at about 3 p.m. on Sept. 17, the student began downing the quart, mixing in a couple of beers as well. It was a Friday, and students said that while there isn't a lot of weekday partying at Fredonia, the weekends are another story.

"There's nothing here to do on the weekend but go out, and sometimes people's weekends start at 3 o'clock on Friday," said Kristen Zimmer, 21, an English major from Rochester.

A pep rally was scheduled for later in the afternoon at the student center. The student was supposed to perform in a skit in the rally, and later told officials he began drinking to help cope with his nerves.

He went to the rally, but was so drunk that his friends sent him back to the dorm. Worried, they followed him back and found him passed out in his room shortly before 6 p.m. Unable to revive him, they called campus police.

While university officials stressed that most students aren't binge drinkers, a survey on campus life did provide educators with some eye-opening statistics, according to L. Michael Dimitri, university vice president for student affairs.

The survey of 1,600 students last year revealed that while 55 percent of students who went out drinking consumed five or fewer drinks, 24 percent said that when they went out to drink, they had more than eight drinks.

A more imprecise sample of 75 students by the campus newspaper, The Leader, revealed that 88 percent of those polled "go out" on the weekends to bars, parties or both. When they "go out," 95 percent said they drink alcohol.

The evidence strongly suggests that campus drinking really has gotten worse, that "binge drinking" really is a more serious plague than the heavy drinking that's been part of college life for 10, 20 or even 50 years.

Black, from UB, fears that excessive drinking really is "getting out of hand" at college campuses. And he has a theory to explain it.

"We really are losing our limits in all kinds of social settings," he pointed out.

"I fear that the common-sense limits that used to kick in, either individually or in a group, are really going by the wayside," Black said. "There are not a lot of individuals or groups who say, 'Stop.' "

College officials are quick to point out that many of their students developed drinking problems long before they first stepped on campus.

"When we talk with some of these individuals, I would say 9 out of 10 say, 'I've been doing this since high school or middle school,' " said Phillip Santa Maria, Buffalo State's associate vice president for student affairs.

Penn State University President Graham Spanier has become one of the nation's top educators speaking out against the ills of campus drinking.

In an Aug. 27 speech, Spanier told the National Press Club that binge drinking has become a bigger problem on college campuses than illegal drugs. He knew what he was talking about.

Two days earlier, a Penn State student celebrating her 21st birthday was hospitalized with a blood-alcohol content of 0.682 percent -- twice the normal level for sending a person into a coma.

The student had participated in a dangerous tradition -- drinking at least 21 alcoholic drinks during a 21st birthday party.

That's the extreme form of "binge drinking," which has been defined as the consumption of five or more drinks in a row at one sitting by a young man, or at least four drinks by a young woman.

"While drinking in college has always been with us, the difference today is that more young people binge drink, and those who engage in high-risk drinking do so more often," Spanier told the National Press Club.

A flood of national statistics backs up that claim:

A 1997 survey of 14,500 college students across the country found that 42.7 percent of the students were considered binge drinkers. Fraternity and sorority members were the heaviest consumers, with 80 percent of them qualifying as binge drinkers.

The survey, conducted by Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health, also cited the problems that excessive drinking creates for non-drinkers.

Of the students who live on college campuses but didn't engage in binge drinking, 80 percent reported they had been victimized by those who did. That figure included victims of assault, sexual advances, vandalism and loud outbursts during sleep and study hours.

Are things at a place like Fredonia State worse than at other colleges?

While no educators or experts on alcohol abuse would compare campuses, Fredonia fits the profile of schools considered likely to have serious drinking problems.

"Small schools, schools that are colleges more than universities and schools located in rural rather than urban settings have a greater difficulty with (binge drinking)," one expert claimed.

But Hefner said he doesn't believe the problem is any worse at Fredonia than any other campus. Other local college officials agree.

"We have our share of problems, as everyone does," Buffalo State's Santa Maria said. "I would say their (Fredonia's) problems are not unique to Fredonia."

Solutions to this complex societal problem are hard to find but Fredonia has a number of programs, including one called "Fredonia Cares" for students who have been involved in alcohol-related incidents on the campus. It's booked solid through the end of the month.

Black believes there are plenty of laws, rules and educational programs about campus drinking. And students understand the consequences.

He believes that college campuses may have to move toward zero tolerance of alcohol abuse to stem the problem.

"We're going to have to stand up and say, 'We're not going to take this anymore.'"

Hefner said a few parents called to tell him they feel he should suspend any underage student that drinks alcohol.

"In this society, that's not reality," he said. "We don't expect abstinence. What we're focusing on is excessive drinking."

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