Drinking And Dying

THE MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF Technology is known as a demanding school, and Scott Krueger was ready for it. He had graduated near the top of his high-school class in upstate New York, and no one doubted that he could balance his freshman engineering classes with early-morning crew practice. But in Boston, there is another side to MIT: its 30 fraternities are a magnet for whiz kids who like to party. Scott Krueger wasn't ready for that. During a Greek Week celebration, the Phi Gamma Delta pledge passed out after downing the equivalent of 16 shots in an hour. His frat brothers carried him back to his basement room in their stately Boston mansion, then noticed he wasn't breathing well. Rescue workers found Krueger comatose. His blood- alcohol level was a staggering .41; the state's legal driving limit is .08. Either Krueger's blood got so thick from alcohol that the oxygen wasn't able to reach his brain or he choked on his own vomit. Days later, his anguished parents took their son off life support.

News of Krueger's death reverberated along the banks of the Charles River. MIT president Charles Vest, calling his school's efforts to curb drinking ""inadequate,'' asked students to voluntarily ban alcohol and put new restrictions on using university funds to buy booze. Two former MIT frat brothers had warned officials in 1992 that off-campus drinking was at a dangerous level; they even posted a 50-page booklet on the Internet.

There is nothing new about college students drinking too much. But in August a pledge at Louisiana State University died after a night of raucous celebration. In May a fire at a North Carolina fraternity house claimed the lives of five students, four of whom may have been too drunk to escape. (There are no reliable national figures on the number of such deaths over the years.) There have been several alcohol-related campus riots in the past year, including two melees last month at the University of New Hampshire. A Harvard University study published last year found that almost half of 17,000 students surveyed qualified as ""binge drinkers,'' meaning they regularly consume at least five drinks in a single outing. How much alcohol is lethal depends on a lot of factors, including a person's weight and how quickly and often he drinks. But experts say that binge drinking is sure to cause more deaths on campus.

There's plenty of blame to go around. Police say fraternity brothers could be tried for manslaughter if they're found to have coerced Krueger to drink. They will almost surely be charged with serving alcohol to minors, a misdemeanor. Meanwhile, the district attorney is also looking into possible involuntary-manslaughter charges against university officials. Krueger's family is said to be furious at the school and could file suit.

Much of the national criticism of bingeing is centered on the Greek system. Henry Wechsler, the author of the Harvard study, found that an ""astounding'' 86 percent of fraternity-house residents were binge drinkers. Two national fraternities announced in the past year that their houses would go dry by 2000. Last week Krueger's fraternity announced a similar pledge and suspended its MIT chapter. But cracking down only seems to create other problems. After a UNH freshman fell off a frat-house roof and died last year, the school pressured the fraternities to impose tighter controls. Now less supervised parties are spilling out into the streets and turning into near riots. Police have used pepper spray and dogs to control the melees. At one surreal point, the drunken mob chanted ""UNH'' and ""USA''; no one seems to know why.

Schools understand that they can't wink at student drinking anymore. MIT vowed to build more dorms and might require freshmen to live in them, thus offering an alternative to frat houses. Several other schools, from giants like the University of Wisconsin to smaller colleges like Lehigh and Villanova, are now testing programs that target area bars and offer incentives for alcohol-free events. A lot of colleges used to take secret pride in being labeled ""party schools.'' That may not be a selling point anymore.

Among 17,592 college students surveyed at 140 campuses, binge drinking (five drinks in a row for men, four for women) is common. The binge drinkers and why some die:

GENDER Male 50% Female 39 RACE White 48% Hispanic 38 'Other' 34 Nat.Amer./Nat.Alask. 34 Asian/Pacific Islander 21 African-American 16 AGE Under 21 45% 21-23 48 24+ 28 COLLEGE RESIDENCE Fraternity/sorority 84% Co-ed dorm 52 Off-campus housing 40 Single-sex dorm 38 SOURCE: HARVARD SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH

* Drinking a lot of alcohol quickly, without eating, raises the blood-alcohol level fast.

* When the level reaches between 400 and 500 milligrams per deciliter, breathing may stop.

* The MIT student could have died two ways--from thickening blood or choking on his own vomit.

Drinking And Dying | News