Fiesta Charra is rarely quiet.  Even on a weeknight, festive Mexican music pumps through the speakers and overlapping conversations fill the adobe-themed rooms.  One large party accounted for much of the latter at the Oxford venue: us.

More than 10 seniors had pushed tables together, absent-mindedly stirring our margaritas.  Conversation is constant, but lackluster. That is, until one student mentions an exploit from her bygone freshman year.

The others around our table lean in conspiratorially, anxious to hear a tale about shenanigans long past.  “I remember – well, I don’t remember it, but I was told about it – there was this one night I blacked out and then got pushed out of taxi.  My friends just left me lying in the road Uptown.  I woke up with gashes down both my legs and called them demanding to know how it had happened.”

Everyone else sits in silence for a minute.  They aren’t stunned, however; they are simply trying to think of their own stories to rival the one just told.

All at once, the table reanimates.

“I want to drink my heart out,” exclaims one of the students.  “I’ve been so busy, I haven’t gone out in weeks.”

“I’ve gotten so old,” mourns another.  “I never do anything crazy anymore.  I miss it.”

As if in competition, a girl’s voice rises over the din.  “Look at this picture from last Tuesday, I was completely hammered.  I don’t remember it being taken.  Look at my face!”

We gradually finish the margaritas and trickle out the door on the way back to the library.  But it’s easy to imagine a less-dedicated – or younger – group heading in the other direction: to the bars.  It’s almost a badge of honor at Miami University to be a high-performing student and high-risk drinker at the same time.

Freshman Erica Buschick’s recent death has thrust college drinking back into the spotlight at Miami and elsewhere.  Although the coroner has not yet concluded that alcohol was to blame, the police reports leave no question that Buschick consumed champagne and vodka on the night she died.

Her sad death underscores the fact that underage drinking is no longer the problem that parents and police should be working to solve on campuses.  Blackout drinking is.

Blackout drinking and binge drinking are like squares and rectangles. All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares; all blackout drinking is binge drinking but not all binge drinking is to blackout.  In fact, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking in a way that does not accurately reflect the current trends at Miami, and certainly elsewhere, too.  Just four drinks in a two-hour timespan constitutes binging, they say.

Per the NIAAA’s definition, 60 percent of college students drink frequently and nearly two-thirds of that group admit to binge drinking. But the NIAAA’s December 2015 report on college alcohol use says nothing about blackout drinking, suggesting the group is out of touch with the very students it is trying to help.

Those closer to the scene, such as university presidents and resident advisers, are more aware of the problem.  Yet despite their knowledge and proximity, they too lack the power to minimize blackout drinking.

Miami’s president, Gregory Crawford, sent out a statement addressing alcohol use on campus on Jan. 20, which included resources to teach students about the dangers of binge and blackout drinking.  It seems less effective, although less authoritarian, than earlier initiatives by the university, which included several iterations of an “Alcohol Task Force.”

A Miami RA reports that she and her colleagues undergo serious training to identify students who engage in underage drinking, yet not much about how to help students who are clearly blacked out.  However, other than intervening when they see it happening in their dorm rooms, RAs can do little but passively offer alternative activities.  And not even all of them choose to do that.

Authorities seem powerless to stop blackout drinking.  Preventative programs that are already in place, like AlcoholEdu, are treated like jokes. There are no follow-up programs for older students.  Movies like “Project X” glorify the blackout lifestyle.   Meanwhile, young Miami students are learning what the college culture is like firsthand, through a dangerous trial and error sequence of blacking out.

Existing initiatives are not enough.  It’s time to change the whole culture.

jackso78@miamioh.edu

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