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‘They Go At It Hard’ 

A string of alcohol-related tragedies hangs over the Washington State University party scene

click to enlarge A group of underage drinkers at a frat party in Pullman last Friday. - ALICIA CARLSON
  • Alicia Carlson
  • A group of underage drinkers at a frat party in Pullman last Friday.

It’s Friday night in Pullman, a week before finals, and all it takes for the Cougar Cottage bar to spontaneously launch into song is the chorus of a hit song about youth, ambition and drinking until you can barely walk.

“Toni-i-ight,” they sing, on-cue and off-tune, “Weee are young, so let’s set the world on fiiire…”

The Coug, as students call it, is packed, the conversation is raucous — one female patron tries in vain for a headstand on a door jamb — and, for the first time in 80 years, the bar now serves liquor. Last spring, the Coug surveyed WSU students on what they wanted, and they wanted liquor. Tonight’s special: Double Vodka Rockstar.

But even employees at the Coug are sometimes worried that it can get out of control.

“The drinking culture’s changed,” says assistant manager Chris Conway, as he checks IDs at the door. “Less social drinking, more drinking to black out. They go at it, and they go at it hard.”

In only a few months, the campus has suffered several alcohol-related tragedies. The student who fell three stories after an unsuccessful leap to another balcony had been drinking. So had the student who fell from the third-story window at the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house and the student at the Lambda Chi Alpha house who toppled backward off a second-floor railing. (Yet another fall, an 11-story drop from a residence hall, was not alcohol-related.)

Then there was the case of Kenny Hummel, an 18-year-old freshman. Hard alcohol and energy drinks had driven up his blood-alcohol level to a lethal level — 0.40, or five times what is considered legally intoxicated.

After Hummel’s death, WSU president Elson Floyd created a task force. Administrators, students, faculty members, medical professionals and even the manager of the Coug will study the problem and suggest policy changes.

Health and Wellness Services Director Bruce Wright, the task force chair, says local hospital data shows a growing problem. The number of patients brought in for detox remained flat, but their blood-alcohol levels have been increasing.

“It’s not that more students are drinking, it’s what students are drinking. When I was in college, we drank beer mostly,” Wright says. “There’s been a shift. Students are drinking hard alcohol.”

WSU has long had a hard-drinking reputation. In 2009, student nominations ranked WSU 16th on Playboy’s list of top party schools in the nation. But Wright notes WSU has an entire office dedicated to educating students about alcohol’s dangers, and for the first time this fall, freshman students sat through a mandatory program on alcohol, drugs and sexual assault.

Dean of Students Melynda Huskey says she’s worked to highlight the fact that many students — 20 percent — don’t drink at all. “Students generally believe that everybody else is drinking more and having more sex than they are and are trying to keep up,” says Huskey.

Stimulant and Depressant

Sophomore Alex Minea’s eyes are teary as she discusses Hummel’s death. She wishes WSU had done more to commemorate to his life and to spotlight the risks that led to his death. “I don’t how many people we’ll lose,” Minea says.

On Oct. 31, Hummel’s aunt held a press conference in Seattle, partially blaming the addition of energy drinks for Hummel’s death. Energy drinks can counteract the drowsy effects of alcohol, clouding the drinker’s awareness of how drunk they are. It can keep them standing and drinking, when they would have passed out long before.

At WSU, energy drinks are ubiquitous. They’re in vending machines and in eight separate stands at the campus bookstore. Students can buy the drinks in the dorm where Hummel died, where a “FUEL UP FOR FINALS!” advertisement promotes a special on Full Throttle and Nos.

Kyle Erdman, the student body president, says he’s not a fan — the mix makes his head too cloudy — but he’s seen peers chug 5-hour ENERGY shots to prepare for a long night of partying.

“You have bars that have their drink special ‘Rockstar Vodka,’” says Erdman.

Across the nation, companies like Monster, Red Bull, Nos and AMP hire students to promote their energy drink. Sophomore Keenan Dolan, WSU’s Monster rep, has access to 500 Monster energy drinks a month. But he says he rarely brings the Monster drinks to events where there’s alcohol, and when he does, he cautions any samplers.

“I just tell them, ‘Make sure you don’t mix it with any alcohol,’” Dolan says.

The Greek System

WSU’s Colorado Street hosts Greek Row — a cluster of bars, fraternities and sororities that act as the epicenter of partying. Most of the alcohol-related falls happened here. And on Friday night, LMFAO’s “Sexy And I Know It” song is thumping at a Greeks-only party at Tau Kappa Epsilon where a social chair checking wristbands explains that, no, reporters are not allowed inside, not with the way that the university has been cracking down.

Still, purple strobe lights flash behind the blinds at numerous house parties. Sorority girls can be spotted traveling in packs, wearing plush reindeer antlers, jingle bells, ironically hideous sweaters and white sorority-branded tank tops.

“I’m not trying to take you back to the dorm,” a boy pleads with a girl on the sidewalk. “I just want to talk to you.”

“You know, for whatever reason, a lot of people associate Greek life with Animal House,” says Taylor Hennessey, director of scholarship and service for the Interfraternity Council, the student government for the Greek system. Yet, this year, fraternities and sororities at WSU boast better average GPAs than the campus and have significantly increased their philanthropic efforts.

And, at the request of administration, the fraternities and sororities have regulated themselves. Jillian Archer, house manager of Kappa Kappa Gamma, says last spring the Greek governance board restricted fraternities to serving beer and wine, banning them from serving liquor. This fall, she says, they went a step further: Now, if students want to drink at a frat party, they have to bring their own beverages.

But she believes the change may have actually increased alcohol consumption: Since partiers purchased their own liquor, she believes they’re more likely to finish the bottle instead of risking arrest carrying an open container home after the party.

For all the changes and tragedies, the normal rhythms of college life have remained. At Lambda Chi Alpha, the front doors have a “The house is CLOSED to non-members until further notice” sign, as members in suits and ties file in. It’s not because of the falls from balconies. It’s because tonight’s the night a whole new generation of Lambda Chi Alpha brothers is initiated. 

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