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Eight Niagara University students went to the hospital for observation because of alcohol abuse since the start of the school year.

And last week, the small, close-knit institution founded by Catholic Vincentian Fathers suspended three basketball players from the team after they got into a fight -- in a nearby bar.

Niagara University does not rank on lists of party schools. But heavy drinking is a part of student life, as it is at campuses across the nation.

"Students tend to experiment when they go away from home, and drinking has become a part of the college experience," said Joseph H. Cuda, dean of student affairs.

For Cuda and his colleagues, such incidents and the drinking death last week of Scott Krueger at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are reminders of an issue they are all too familiar with.

College presidents ranked alcohol abuse as their No. 1 problem on campus in a recent Carnegie Foundation survey.

About 4,000 Americans die each year from alcohol abuse, largely teen-agers, according to Remove Intoxicated Drivers.

But death is one extreme of a larger concern on campuses nationally.

Critics say alcohol abuse also contributes to unwanted sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases, violence, vandalism, car accidents, illness, disorderly conduct and academic failures.

"Ninety-five percent of all the problems on our campus are related to alcohol consumption," said L. Michael Dimitri, vice president of student affairs at Fredonia State College.

Fredonia in 1993 banned alcohol at Fredonia Fest, an annual celebration held the weekend before the last week of classes. Alcohol-related problems didn't go away. They shifted downtown, where a half dozen bars vie for student business with discounts and other specials, such as "drink until you drown" nights.

Last year's festival led to the arrest of 19 people, not all of them students, for disorderly conduct, having open containers and urinating in public.

The incidents at Niagara and Fredonia, as well as at other local colleges, exemplify a national problem that has been the subject of recent research.

In 1994, researchers from Harvard University's School of Public Health began publishing some of the most ambitious work to date. Their survey the year before of 17,592 students on 140 campuses suggested that nearly half of U.S. college students are binge drinkers who make life difficult for much of the other half. The researchers found that:

Forty-four percent of the students reported bingeing on alcohol, defined as downing five drinks in a row for men or four in a row for women on at least one occasion in the two weeks before the survey.

Nineteen percent of the students were frequent bingers, defined as those who have had at least three binges during the period. Eighty-four percent of all students reported drinking during the school year.

Binge drinkers were seven times as likely to have unprotected sex as a non-binge drinker, 10 times as likely to drive after drinking and 11 times as likely to fall behind in school.

Eighty-six percent of fraternity house residents and 80 percent of those who live sorority houses qualified as binge drinkers.

At about one-third of the schools, more than 50 percent of students were bingers. At another third, fewer than 35 percent were bingers.

At the schools with the most binge drinking, sober students were twice as likely as those at the schools with the fewest bingers, to be insulted or humiliated, to be pushed or hit, to experience unwanted sexual advances from drinking students, and to have their study or sleep interrupted because of classmates' drinking.

Campuses with big sports programs, fraternities and sororities had more binge drinkers. The highest-risk campuses got that way for two reasons: They attracted binge drinkers, and they turned non-drinkers into binge drinkers.

"Binge drinking is not a harmless rite of passage. It's a serious health and behavioral problem today in college life," said George W. Dowdall, associate dean of St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and one of the principal investigators of the study.

Dowdall and others suggest that colleges must vigorously and systematically act against alcohol use by students.

Many schools have been doing that, including those in Western New York.

Fredonia State has adopted a "zero tolerance" policy for the use of alcohol in any Greek organization rituals and requires fraternities and sororities to sign a document that prohibits hazing.

College-sponsored events are alcohol-free, as are events paid for by students' annual fees.

Niagara holds freshmen symposiums at which information about substance abuse is distributed, and all students receive a booklet of alcohol and drug abuse services.

Students who end up in the hospital because of drinking must see a counselor. Repeat offenders must take a medical leave.

Geneseo State College in September introduced regulations to govern Greek organizations. One of the reasons is greater substance abuse among sorority and fraternity members and complaints from nearby residents about disturbances and property damage.

Even recognized party schools are cleaning up their act.

The University of Rhode Island was dubbed the nation's top party school from 1993 to 1995 by The Princeton Review, a test preparation company. But President Robert L. Carothers banned alcohol from all campus functions in 1995. Then in 1996 he forfeited a football game after some players beat up fraternity members over a party where alcohol was served.

"Most colleges have banned alcohol. The days of beer blasts and keg parties are over," said Fredonia's Dimitri.

For him and other college officials, the problem is what to do once their students step off campus.

Many bars and stores fail to enforce drinking-age laws, and authorities don't have enough personnel to police every establishment where students drink or buy alcohol.

College-area bars also attract students to get drunk with ads, fliers and banners that offer all-you-can-drink specials, $1 shots, free drinks for women and bottomless cups for those who bring their own.

"We worry about cigarette advertising. We should be equally concerned about irresponsible liquor ads," said Dimitri.

Niagara prohibits bars from posting ads on campus, yet they show up with regularity.

Cuda said school officials complain to offending bar owners. If it happens a second time, they complain to the State Liquor Authority.

Nevertheless, the problem doesn't go away.

Dowdall suggests that schools will have to work more closely with local police to enforce and recruit residents in an effort to lobby for stricter regulation of liquor ads in their states.

"No one is suggesting we go back to the days of Prohibition," he said. "But universities are going to have to respond to the problem and do it in a way that involves their local community."

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