The death of Nolan M. Burch is a tragedy for the West Virginia University freshman and everyone who cared about him. But it is much more than that: It is a tragedy that has occurred before and, worse, one that will happen again, so deeply ingrained is alcohol in currents of American culture.
That is true in many places, but it is a special problem on college campuses, where peer pressure is high among a population whose ability to exercise good judgment remains a work in progress.
Burch, a Canisius High School graduate from Amherst, was pledging the university’s Kappa Sigma fraternity. As part of that process, he was handed a bottle of liquor by a senior member or alumnus of the fraternity. Police say he apparently chugged a large amount of the bottle, producing a mortally high blood alcohol content of 0.49 percent – six times the level of intoxication in New York. He lost consciousness and died a day and a half later. He was 18 years old.
Alcohol is not going anywhere. It has been around for millennia and will be for millennia more. Legal drinking ages are important, but they need to be enforced. West Virginia’s is 21, and it didn’t keep the bottle out of Nolan Burch’s hands.
University leaders have an important role to play in this, as well. So do high schools, for that matter. Both need to ensure that students understand that even appropriate use of alcohol, let alone its abuse, can lead to terrible consequences. No homeless alcoholic thought he was going to end up destitute and alone when he sneaked his first drink as a teenager.
The issue is significant enough that state and federal governments should ensure that colleges and universities are taking effective steps to educate their students on the perils of alcohol abuse and to take steps against those institutions that do not act to stop or that otherwise tolerate behaviors that can lead to grave harm or death.
University officials have promised to change the alcohol culture at West Virginia. It will be a tough nut to crack on campuses. Alcohol has become so infused into daily life that, as with anything else, some people are bound to abuse it. It is all but guaranteed. It’s hard to accept, but there is only so much that can be done to fix this problem.
But, clearly, more can be done than is being attempted today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking among students has declined dramatically since the mid-1990s. Alcohol use and abuse has also declined, but not as much. Lessons from the former’s success may apply to the latter.
Finally, it will be important to determine who, beyond Burch himself, is accountable for this teenager’s completely avoidable death. And after that is done, it will also be important to shout the consequences from the rooftops of every university in the country.