Alcohol

Binge and Purge

Scolding students won't make them safer.

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Late on the night of October 31, 1997, MIT lost its third undergraduate in little more than a month. By then I was getting used to writing obituaries. It was my junior year, and I had started an alternative newspaper, hoping to write about the scientific breakthroughs flowering all over campus. Then students started dying, and I found myself covering a different beat.

This time, I was almost frightened at how the article came so automatically, in an easy stream of typing and phone calls. Two cars had hit and killed Michelle Micheletti as she crossed Memorial Drive, a dangerously busy street that separates MIT from the Charles River and Boston. My dormitory was on Memorial Drive, as are most of the others on campus. From the curbside, the speeding cars seemed eager to tear off pedestrians' limbs. There were neither traffic lights nor walkways. Even before the accident, some MIT students had been campaigning for a safer way to get across the street. Even after the accident, nothing was done to make the street safer, aside from repainting the crosswalks.

I posted my story on the paper's Web page. Finishing it left me drained, so I drifted around my dorm for a while, feeling numb. Seeing an old friend in an elevator, I sighed and muttered that we had "lost another one." She asked who it was, I told her the name, and she collapsed into my chest. "I knew her, I knew her," she sobbed. The elevator doors opened and she ran back to her room, wiping her eyes.

Her reaction left me in cold shock. At the end of September, two freshmen had died within a week of one another, but neither had been on campus long enough to be close to more than a small group of friends. I hadn't known Michelle, but it seemed as though every third person I talked to had. She had been active in student government, a sorority member, an excellent student. Everyone who talked to me about her mentioned her constant smile. This loss stung, striking not only at our fear of mortality but at the connections within our community.

But Michelle Micheletti's death had little impact outside of MIT: just a few articles in The Boston Globe. The first student to die--Umaer Basha, who had drowned in the shower--seemed to get no press coverage at all. But the second death had captured the nation's attention, seizing space on CNN, in newsmagazines, and on front pages.

Scott Krueger had passed out drunk during an initiation celebration at his fraternity. He choked on his vomit, fell into a coma, and, three days later, died. By then he was already national news. His death had become a flash point in a national debate about drinking on campuses, and the handsome face and dimpled smile of his high school yearbook photo had become a symbol of the dangers alcohol poses to youthful innocents just sent off to college. And once he was turned into a symbol, the details of his tragedy were glossed over, forgotten. The realities of student life were lost in a swarm of flashing cameras, screaming headlines, and political grandstanding.

Life at MIT became surreal. As some students tried to mourn at a candlelight memorial service, others lined up for the television cameras. All sense of context was lost, and with it went any chance of really learning from Krueger's death.

College is a nuclear reactor. Students bounce around wildly, colliding and combining and falling apart in the chaos between early adolescence and adulthood. Universities try to contain this energy, to direct it toward learning and growth. But there is inevitable tension: The hyperactive stupor of a wild party is at least as much a part of student life as the controlled intellectual exercise of the classroom. Sometimes the controls on student behavior snap, and something explodes.

Scott Krueger's death was an explosion, as violent an accident as the crash that killed Michelle Micheletti. And just as Micheletti might have been saved by a traffic light or an overpass walkway, Krueger might have lived if some aspects of college culture, particularly fraternity culture, had been different. But the conditions that killed Krueger were shaped by the complicated reactions of a campus' social life, something far more complex than a busy street. Automobiles have drivers. Fraternities don't.

Yet the perception that college drinking was out of control--and the fact that Krueger was so young--led many people to insist that someone must be responsible for his death. The police launched a homicide investigation. As a grand jury was convened, there was speculation that indictments might finger not only Krueger's fraternity brothers but MIT itself. The legal process dragged on for the better part of a year, while Scott's parents gave interviews to Newsweek and 20/20 attacking MIT for allowing their son to live in a fraternity that had encouraged his drinking and his death.

Those charges had merit. Indeed, there were times when I was ready to point a finger at the university myself. Krueger had died at a reckless, dangerous event that had occurred while MIT wasn't watching but should have been.

Krueger had passed out while drinking at an initiation party at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, or Fiji, where he lived. Allegedly, the frat had challenged Krueger and his pledge class to finish the alcohol left in a room with them while they watched the movie Animal House. According to court papers, Krueger was then taken to his basement room and placed on his stomach with a trash pail near his head. There was a delay before anyone called for help. Krueger's fraternity brothers called MIT's campus police. When an ambulance arrived, he had already turned purple.

Animal House Night was a Fiji tradition. A student who had pledged the fraternity the year before but left, Pedro Fuentes, remembered attending a similar event. "It was Animal House Night, I think," he told The Harvard Crimson. "They gave us 90 beers…and told us to finish it before the end of the movie." When I phoned him, Fuentes declined to elaborate further: He didn't want "to get the guys in Fiji in trouble." He insisted that all pledge activities were voluntary.

Such dangerous initiation rites were not limited to Fiji. A former member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, Ryan Maupin, told me that "Sig Ep" used drinking rituals to welcome new pledges. But "after Krueger it had to stop--it was too risky."

The university should have been more aware of what was going on. As Rosalind Williams, MIT's highest-ranking dean, admitted to me, "We just were not sufficiently aware of what was happening in fraternity houses." But it isn't fair to blame Krueger's death on MIT.

Scott Krueger did not die because someone had a responsibility to watch him and failed. He fell through the gaps between other people's responsibilities. The university administration, his fraternity brothers, perhaps his friends and family, certainly the MIT community into which he had moved, all failed him. Scott Krueger was not murdered. He was ignored to death.

At MIT as anywhere else, students join fraternities looking for a place to belong. College is a bridge between the cozy, often claustrophobic world of high school and the looming openness of the rest of life. Fraternities provide one more place of shelter. They can be good or bad for the people who live in them, but they always provide a barrier against isolation.

Yet the problem with the fraternity where Krueger died may have been its own isolation from the rest of campus. The most dangerous thing about the party Scott Krueger was attending was not that he was drinking too much, nor even that he may have been pressured to drink. It was the celebration's small size.

Alcohol is most dangerous at small events like the one Krueger attended. I've rarely seen people horribly drunk at large parties--tipsy or goofy, sure, but not passed out, cod-fleshed and clammy. And when someone does drink too much while surrounded by a hundred other students, it is much more likely that someone will be there to get him through the night.

It's the times when five of us sat down over a bottle of tequila that I saw friends get so drunk they couldn't stand or speak coherently. And when all five drinkers are already tired and emotional, chances diminish that someone will be around to help.

Once, after drinking for hours in a small group, a close friend of mine decided it would be fun to drink a glass of straight vodka and pass out. Fortunately, he decided to do this at a rather large party instead of in the small group he had been with. Several of us found him, contacted MIT's medical center, and kept a bedside vigil. Other students who had seen him were checking up on him all night. (Incidentally, the medical department told us to do exactly what Krueger's fraternity brothers did for him: to lay him on his side or stomach and check on him every five or 10 minutes.)

"Dangerous drinking should not be associated with larger parties," concedes MIT's Dean Williams. "Student deaths, or near-deaths, are associated with celebrating something [in smaller groups], whether it's a birthday or a football game victory." But it was larger parties--the kind university administrators can track and control--that public opinion and city officials forced MIT to curtail in the wake of Krueger's death. As Williams worriedly acknowledges, students were left to drink in their rooms.

The MIT I entered in 1995 constantly erupted with packed parties. These served as a release, as places where the pressures of a heavy workload could give way to something immediate, thrilling, joyous. In dormitory basements and frat house living rooms, those parties were a steam valve, a symbol of the strong communities that students relied on for emotional support.

When these parties suddenly vanished in the days following Krueger's death, MIT became far less bearable. Gray, technical, and cold, it became a place of nerve endings deadened by grief. The world seemed hopelessly bleak, and there was nothing to do but sit in our dorm rooms, work, and think.

In March, there was a fourth death: Philip Gale, a sophomore who jumped from the 15th floor of MIT's tallest building. Gale had helped build Earthlink, a budding Internet company, and was a brilliant musician. When The Boston Globe finally published something about him a week after his death, it wrote mostly about his links to Scientology. It also got his hair color wrong. The chants against "college binge drinking" started to sound hollow: It became increasingly hard to believe that any of the scolds actually cared about the students they were "protecting."

But they persisted. In October 1998, Congress passed a law allowing colleges to notify parents of drinking violations even when they pose no threat to a student's welfare. Previously, the 1974 Buckley amendment forbade the release of such student records. (Across the country, alcohol poisoning kills some 50 students each year. One wonders why this body count is enough to prompt a new national law, while Memorial Drive remains as deadly as ever.)

MIT appointed a Working Group on Dangerous Drinking, headed by Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp; among other things, it recommended that alcohol-poisoned students be protected from legal penalty when they are given medical help. This would make students more likely to call for help, the working group argued, making death or injury less likely. The proposal went nowhere, partly because of administrative problems, but also, perhaps, because some of the authorities were less interested in protecting people than in scolding them.

The fraternities fell under increased scrutiny. In late August, almost a year after Krueger's death, partygoers on the roof deck of Beta Theta Pi, an MIT fraternity on the Boston University campus, threw beer bottles at BU police officers. One student, James Williams, was charged following the incident; allegedly, he had bought the alcohol.

The charges against Williams were weak and eventually fizzled, but when the city threatened to revoke the fraternity's license to house students he was under intense legal pressure and would not speak to reporters. Sitting near him at the licensing board meeting, I heard him mutter that no one there cared about the truth.

That was what it felt like to be an MIT student that year, listening to lectures on the dangers of drinking from people who didn't have a clue what the dangers we faced actually were.