By Allen Johnson Jr.
SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:
Parents send their kids to college to get an education -- not to die after fraternity binge drinking parties. So for "Mrs. Smith," a New Orleans mother of two sons at Louisiana State University, the alcohol poisoning death of LSU student Benjamin Wynne hit close to home.
Mrs. Smith is an LSU alum who belonged to a campus sorority and learned the fraternal system of a generation ago. Both of her sons -- like their father before them -- belong to LSU fraternities, though not to Sigma Alpha Epsilon, where Wynne was a pledge. And Mrs. Smith's young men also had imbibed at Murphy's bar, the now-closed college hangout from which Wynne and other SAE pledges were reportedly wheeled out in shopping carts after drinking pitchers of liquor concoctions on the night of Wynne's death.
But the comparisons stop there. Mrs. Smith's sons are alive and well; Wynne is dead, and his fraternity is under investigation.
Liability and Responsibility
What followed Wynne's death was a brief spell of public soul-searching over Louisiana's lax drinking culture coupled with official posturing for tougher enforcement of the state's new ban on underage drinking. In New Orleans, cops staged raids on university area bars and stores suspected of selling booze to minors and found numerous violators. Local schools put fraternities on notice. John Kennedy, secretary of the state Department of Revenue & Taxation, vowed to use the agency's tiny 22-person enforcement arm to crack down on bars that allow underage drinking.
But public discussion of how to prevent future alcohol-related deaths stalled after revelations that both Wynne and fellow SAE pledge, Donald Hunt, 21, had previous arrests for DWI. Because lawsuits filed by the Hunt family blamed Murphy's bar, SAE and LSU for his hospitalization, public opinion appeared to shift against Hunt amid general denouncements of "victimhood" and cries for "individual responsibility."
In fact, revelations that the two had drunk to excess in the past overshadowed allegations that Murphy's knowingly served alcohol to underage drinkers and that the bar had been fined for similar violations earlier this year.
The bar denies any hand in the deadly SAE debacle, as does the fraternity itself. Hunt's suit alleges he was "tacitly forced" by his frat brothers to drink himself unconscious. SAE's national office, meanwhile, has suspended its LSU chapter pending further investigation.
To escape liability is not to escape blame, however. Even if the courts conclude Wynne and Hunt were done in by their own `bent elbows,' the effects of the state's underage drinking law have come under fire.
The new state ban against serving alcohol to persons younger than 21 still allows youths age 18 to 20 to hang out in bars. The legal schism has left club owners with the burdensome responsibility of separating herds of students into drinkers and non-drinkers. In fact, the practice of tagging and tracking students like fish in an aquaculture project has proved so maddening that many Tigertown bar owners are expected to develop policies that ban anyone under 21.
Beyond the watering holes, the Legislature still permits youths 18 and older to drink as long as they are accompanied by a parent or guardian or they are in the privacy of their own homes or -- depending on college rules -- their campus residence.
Fearing litigation and high insurance rates, however, LSU has opted for a "dry" campus. But the rush to regulation has prompted concern that unenforceable drinking laws will simply drive the problem off-campus -- and underground.
On Sept. 6, Mrs. Smith drove up to meet her sons before LSU's season-opening football game.
"I saw plenty of kids drinking beer," she said. "They just moved across the street from the fraternity house to the law [school parking] lot. Or, they drank with their parents.
"Making LSU a dry campus is not going to work. The kids will just find another way to drink. They won't have it in the [fraternity] house, though. I think they will obey that rule. But hard liquor consumption will probably increase because it's easier to conceal."
In a time-honored "tradition," LSU students -- male and female, pledges and active fraternity members -- sneak flasks of alcohol into football games. Despite the school's efforts to crack down on the smuggling, students continue to mix soft drinks sold at concession stands with the hard stuff they bring in.
"If you don't let [students] drink in a controlled fashion, they are going to go underground," Mrs. Smith said. "It's all negative reinforcement. `Slap them on the hand. Kick them off campus.' We need to get smart."
Back in New Orleans, many students at Tulane and Loyola universities appear to agree with the LSU frat mom -- underage drinking is a fait accompli, law or no law. And some students report little or no trouble obtaining "fake I.D." to skirt the ban.
"No matter what, freshmen are going to drink," said Geoff Geftman, president of Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity at Tulane. "This is their first time away from home, and they go to the bars and they drink and they go wild."
The Tulane Hullabaloo student paper bypassed editorial comment on underage drinking but ran a lengthy lifestyle article that seemed to set the stage for student newcomers to New Orleans bar scene: "Ladies and gentlemen, let's get ready to rumble. ... The parents have just taken flight, and freedom now rains down upon you like a great green tsunami." The article goes on to list area bars that sell cheap drinks, including "penny pitchers" of beer at a bar near campus.
A local ABC enforcer said such bars are a natural draw for underage drinkers. "The way in which the bars market their booze entices students to come in. The purpose is to get drunk. Look at the specials: three drinks for the price of one." One popular college hangout offered 13 drinks free, provided the customer could drink 14 consecutive concoctions, he said.
Underage drinking is a low priority for New Orleans police, who focus more attention on lounges that permit drugs and violence, Gambit Weekly sources said.
One source said enforcement of underage drinking laws and other club violations is likely to remain spotty, given the lobbying power of the alcohol industry in Baton Rouge, the tax dollars that bars provide to local governments and the in-kind campaign contributions of booze to political candidates.
"The law doesn't apply equally to everybody," the ABC source said. "The French Quarter bars are off limits, though we know they get underage drinking. It's the poor people (bar owners) that will get hit. It's in every community: `wink, wink, wink.' Politicians posture, but alcohol offers tax dollars -- lots of tax dollars."
Like the ABC enforcer, Mrs. Smith opposes bar "super specials" that entice young customers to drink to excess, but she also says that fraternities need to assume the responsibility of looking after each other.
"That boy is never coming back," she said of Wynne. "But the rest of the frats have not stopped drinking because of it. Five `actives' should stay sober and make sure things don't go awry anytime a fraternity has a party. Maybe it's the responsibility of the president of the chapter or the officers on campus. Maybe the Inter-Fraternity Council can show the fraternities what's being done in other cities. Somebody has to tell these kids when to stop."
Major college administrators, meanwhile, feel they do their best to curb alcohol abuse. Historically black universities Dillard, SUNO and Xavier have required delayed fraternity rush weeks for years to ease the social pressure on first-year students. Tulane (14 Greek organizations) and Loyola (11) have followed suit within the last decade, and UNO is considering implementing the practice.
At Tulane and Loyola, drinking is allowed in campus residences if students are at least 18 years of age. Many area colleges require student organizations to undergo "responsible host seminars" in which they learn about the effects of alcohol and other drugs.
Increasingly, administrators enroll other students to act as "peer health advocates" for entering freshmen. "We challenge students to think about the consequences of behavior," said Dan Nadler, assistant dean of students at Tulane.
Meanwhile, two Tulane frat houses, Sigma Nu and Phi Gamma Delta, will be substance-free housing by the year 2000. "I imagine more fraternities will take that plunge," Tenclinger said.
Billye Potts, director of student development activities at UNO, said all 10 fraternities at the Lakefront campus follow strict guidelines against alcohol and drug abuse set by the Fraternity Insurance Policy Groups, a major insurer of frat houses.
"We tell our new students, `You're not going to have someone looking over your shoulder here. Try not to succumb to peer pressure,'" Potts said. "I let them hear from other, older students who tell them, `You need to be who you want to be, not who someone else wants you to be.' A lot of students are becoming more independent; they're thinking for themselves."
And that is exactly why parents send their kids to college.
Additional reporting by Tulane student and former Gambit Weekly intern Steven Zuckerman.
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