Underage and under arrest

Nick Lowrey

SDSU sees its share of minor consumption—something it wants to change.


It’s 2 a.m. Saturday morning and there’s a party going on, music is blaring, the house is overflowing, there’s a circle of smokers outside and flashing red and blue lights are approaching from down the road.

It’s a familiar sight on the streets of Brookings during the school year, most often it’s simply people having a good time and being loud about it. Usually these events are accompanied by large amounts of alcohol, loud music and reckless abandon. Every so often, though, the police pay a visit and, as is their job, arrest people for underage drinking.

Underage consumption of alcohol is a growing problem on college campuses across the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people under the age of 21 consume 11 percent of the alcohol sold in the U.S. Much of that is in the form of binge drinking, which the CDC describes as drinking five or more drinks within about two hours.

The CDC also reported in 2008 there were around 190,000 emergency room visits by people under the age of 21 for alcohol-related issues.

SDSU Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, Doug Wermedal, said the number one health issue on college campuses today is substance abuse. Alcohol, he said, is by far the drug of choice for college students.

A group of sophomores in Pierson Hall said on average they would each drink up to half a case of beer on a Friday or Saturday night. The group wished to remain anonymous for legal reasons. When asked why they drink so much they said simply, “to socialize.”

Underage drinking can lead to several consequences.

In Brookings, the legal consequences for someone caught drinking underage are severe for the first offense. According to the Brookings County State’s Attorney office, the first offense is usually punished with a five-day jail sentence, a $120 fine and suspension of a driver’s license for 30 days. The jail sentence is suspended if the offender completes an alcohol awareness program at East Central Behavioral Center.

Subsequent offenses in the same year are dealt with more harshly. The second offense results in a 10-day jail sentence, a $240 fine and a 60-day driver’s license suspension. Eight days of the jail time are usually suspended so long as the offender attends an intensive alcohol therapy session.

The third offense in a year usually results in a 15-day jail sentence with 12 days suspended, a $300 fine and a return to the intensive alcohol therapy session. Sentences are given at the discretion of the court, so they can vary.

The group of sophomores, some of whom were from states other than South Dakota, were not impressed with the punishments doled out by Brookings county for underage drinking.

“It’s way over the top here,” said one. “It’s like, take my freedom for nothing.”

“It’s not like it’s going to stop anyone,” said another.

According to Amy Osterberg, a clinician at East Central Behavioral Health, the vast majority of the people they see for underage consumption do not go on to have alcohol problems in the future.

“I’ve met a lot of people that quit at 21,” said Micheal Forgy, the clinical director and CEO of ECBH. “If it’s legal [students] feel they don’t have to do it anymore.”

One of the sophomores said, “I’ll definitely drink less once I graduate, I’m not going to get up and go to work for 10 hours hungover.”

So what’s the big deal with drinking underage?

“I don’t think people realize that it affects their future,” said Osterberg.

Jail time may seem bad enough, but for many it’s just the beginning. Almost every employer these days runs a background check; part of the check is looking at criminal records. A history of alcohol problems – real or perceived – does not look good to any employer. Some professions like nursing, teaching and aviation require an explanation and a proof of sentence in order to get a job.

“We get people in all the time that need to get a reassessment,” Osterberg said.

SDSU recently convened a group called the Alcohol Education Task Force to study alcohol abuse by its students and to design a message aimed at reducing “high-risk” drinking behavior.

“The concern is high-risk behaviors, like binge drinking, affect student success,” Wermedal said.

The task force is made up of faculty, students and Residential Life staff. Wermedal explained the purpose of the group is not to spread the message alcohol is bad and should be avoided at all costs.

“The message is never going to be evil alcohol, run and hide,” he said. “We want to say that this behavior will eventually affect your arrival at a diploma.”

The task force’s message will be tailored to how drinking affects student success, not that drinking is inherently bad.

“Give yourself an understanding of what the risks are and then make the adult choice,” Wermedal said. “None of that is to say: don’t drink—just to say: drink without risk.”