MOSCOW -- High risk drinking on college campuses is in the news again. Data compiled by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism is drawing attention to what many experts believe is a growing problem.
The NIAAA reports that each year, fellow students who have been drinking assault nearly 700,000 students, 400,000 have unprotected sex while drunk, almost 600,000 are injured, and some 1,825 students die due to alcohol poisoning and alcohol related accidents.
Student deaths and injuries at the University of Idaho have raised concerns about the culture of drinking on that campus, so KTVB's (KREM's sister station in Boise) Dee Sarton traveled to Moscow to find out how the university, local law enforcement and students are responding.
"The University of Idaho has high graduation rates," said UI student Jordan Wilson. "It's a really good school. I love it here, and the whole fact of it being a party school, it's kind of a stereotype."
That's a stereotype some vandals despise, but most, even Wilson, admit it does have some basis in fact. "Binge drinking is a huge problem with kids," said Wilson.
"It's a very big drinking party school," said student Kathryn Gustafson. "That's like, the reputation everybody knows."
"Sadly, it's the bad cases that make the name." said student Ben Watson.
DEATHS, INJURIES, AND ALCOHOL
Some of those "bad" cases have turned tragic, making plenty of headlines in recent years. Since 2004, there have been three serious injuries and four student deaths, all blamed on alcohol consumption. Now another apparent alcohol related fatality, Joseph Wiederrick.
"We feel really sad about what happened. It's a really sad story," said student Blanca Valadez.
It is the story of Wiederrick, a freshman who reportedly drank at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house, and then wandered outside the city limits in below freezing weather, disoriented and hopelessly lost - finally dying under a bridge of hypothermia.
Wiederrick's story ended miles from the party he left, and miles from the dorm room he was trying to get back to. His story and all the others lead to the obvious question; can more be done to prevent tragedies like this?
"If there were easy answers, we would have solved it a long time ago." says UI Dean of Students Dr. Bruce Pitman.
Pitman has been dean of students at UI for over 40 years. He says the university has implemented quality programs and stepped up its communication with students about the dangers of high risk drinking.
FIGHTING AGAINST EXCESSIVE DRINKING
"Unlike what the headlines would describe in the last couple weeks, we had a very good fall semester," said Pitman. "We did put a very heavy emphasis on safety programming, safety messaging during orientation but also beyond."
In addition, he says enforcement is up, too. According to records KTVB obtained, the number of students referred for disciplinary action because of alcohol violations is up dramatically, almost doubling from 144 in 2010 to 326 in 2011.
Most students KTVB talked to are aware of the university's efforts to discourage the culture of drinking.
"If we're caught drinking, we could get kicked out of the school." said Wilson.
"As far as the university goes, I feel like they do get the message out." said student Kayla Ericksen.
However, others think more could be done to crack down on what they describe as the hotbed of excessive drinking -- parties at fraternities on what is known as Greek row.
POLICE, GREEK SYSTEM SEARCH FOR ANSWERS
"They get away with so much," said Gustafson. "Every weekend there's a party, and you always know about it. But the university doesn't do anything to stop those kids from drinking underage." When KTVB asked, "Do you think there's anything they can do?" Gustafson replied, "I think they could enforce it with the law. I think the cops could be called. They could break up parties. It's not too difficult. I see it every day."
Turns out, it is not that easy. UI fraternities are not on university property. Their houses are privately owned, and without a search warrant, police cannot just walk in and shut the parties down, even if they suspect underage drinking.
"It seems to be an acceptable culture that you drink to an excess and the binge drinking and it's just something that has evolved. I think over time to college campuses, and I don't know how that occurred, but I know for sure that we gotta change that culture," said Moscow Police Lieutenant Dave Lehmitz.
Lehmitz heads up the campus division of Moscow Police. He says enforcement became even more difficult when lawmakers took the teeth out of Idaho's law dealing with those who serve alcohol to minors.
"Years ago providing alcohol to a minor on a second office became a felony, and now it's only a misdemeanor," said Lehmitz.
However, despite those hurdles, Lehmitz stresses - they have got a good partnership with the university and worked together last year to shut down Delta Chi, a fraternity with persistent alcohol violations.
"I think we're making progress, and I think if that word travels that the university's committed on making a change. The police department is committed on making a change, I think you will see change," said Lehmitz.
Pitman says evidence of that change is the trend toward dry fraternity houses. "We are gradually having fewer and fewer chapters that at least by policy, at least by policy, allow alcohol in the fraternities." When KTVB asked, "But if you had your druthers?" Pitman replied, "If I had my druthers they'd all be dry." KTVB asked, "And are you moving in that direction, as you said aggressively, or is that or on a case by case basis when something comes up?" Pitman replied, "We have had some conversations with all of the house corporations and alumni. In the last year or so and we're talking to them about that," Pitman said.
Still students point out that the law and the university can only do so much.
"There's many students that don't abide by the rules either way so if there were stricter rules or policies, I'm pretty sure they'd still go out of their way to break those policies." said Valadez.
"I think it can be a problem here, but it just depends on the individual, I think." said student Nolan Gibbens.
"You can try to stop it, but there's not a lot that anyone can do besides the person making the choice," said Wilson.
The investigation into Joseph Wiederrick's death continues as the toxicology report still have not come in.
KTVB did learn that the fraternity house where he is thought to have been drinking the night he died, lost its alcohol privileges last spring over past violations.
Pitman would not speculate on what another violation might mean to the future of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Idaho.