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March 24, 2015 NASHVILLE â€” Every weekend, around 11 p.m., the pilgrimage begins.
Students at Vanderbilt University spill out of dorm rooms and apartments and make their way to a cluster of dimly lit watering holes a few minutes from campus.
They lean against bars and fill dance floors in Midtown and along Demonbreun Street. On a Friday night in February, the college students drank alongside older Nashville residents and tourists at Rebar, Tin Roof and South.
It's a weekend ritual repeated at popular college nightspots across Tennessee.
College students tend to out-drink their unenrolled peers and are more likely to report binge or heavy drinking than non-students, said Aaron White, the program director forUnderage and College Drinking Research Initiative at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Many factors drive drinking among students â€” a newfound freedom from parental supervision, peer pressure and a cultural expectation that college is the place to drink.
"By the time students reach college, they have been exposed to all types of messages in the culture, that college is a place when you get there that everyone is drinking to excess," White said. "We're very focused here on that culture. We want to change the culture on campuses so more students arrive with a healthy expectation about what the culture can be like and more students graduate without those risky levels of drinking."
College students' troubling relationship with alcohol is nothing new, but a recent surge of high-profile sexual assaults and violence linked with alcohol abuse has triggered renewed focus â€” and frustration â€” for administrators and law enforcement across the country.
Metro Nashville Police Sgt. John Pepper walks a beat of tough love on his graveyard patrol shift, which overlaps peak drinking time.
Pepper's precinct covers three universities and the bars in Midtown and on Demonbreun Street. Those worlds collide, especially on busy nights such as Thursday and Friday, and Pepper makes a point to patrol the areas on foot.
"Especially near college campuses, you're going to have the tendency to have underage kids trying to get into bars," he said. "It's not new. It happens everywhere."
Arrests for underage drinking have declined about 13% in Nashville in the past five years, something Pepper attributes to bar owners' efforts to crack down on fake IDs and over-serving, as well as increased patrol efforts.
But still hundreds of minors, ages 13 to 20 and not only college students, are arrested citywide each year for possessing or consuming alcohol, according to data from the Metro Nashville Police Department. Even more face disciplinary actions on campus for alcohol related offenses.
At Vanderbilt, there were two alcohol-related arrests in 2013 and 13 in 2012, according to data compiled by the Department of Education. But 348 Vanderbilt students faced on-campus discipline in 2013 and 359 faced such campus discipline in 2012, the data show.
At the University of Tennessee Knoxville, there were 154 arrests for alcohol offenses and 457 students were referred for on-campus discipline the same year. At the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, there were nine campus arrests for alcohol and 282 students referred for discipline in 2013.
Like clockwork at the start of every semester, Pepper said, he and bar bouncers see an influx of fake identification.
Years ago, Pepper realized a couple of hours in a drunk tank was not curbing the problem.
Now, when he and his patrol officers arrest students from Vanderbilt, Belmont, Lipscomb, Tennessee State and Fisk universities, he makes a call to the school. The schools, he said, have more resources to provide treatment, if need be, to the students.
They also have the authority to dole out an extra layer of discipline. The notifications are not policy so much as practice, but Pepper believes they are working.
Pepper estimated he spends about 60% of his patrol time working with bar owners and patrolling nighttime hot spots. Once a year he organizes an event to get bar owners information about how to prevent problems. Many of the bar staff have his cellphone number.
"We'll never eliminate it altogether," he said of underage drinking. "But we can help keep people from getting hurt."
COLLEGES PLAY ROLE IN RESPONSE
Colleges don't create problem drinkers, but they can play a pivotal role in how students respond to drinking. Colleges that have clear and firm rules that are enforced have fewer problems, White said.
But he cautioned that the problem is a tricky one for campuses to address.
"We want our schools to give our young adults, which is what they are legally when they hit campus, opportunities to use their emerging frontal lobes to make decisions for themselves," White said. "We also want them to keep students safe. But it's a delicate balance and it's difficult to achieve."
Universities have taken a range of approaches to try to curb underage and excessive drinking, including education in freshmen orientation, campuswide marketing campaigns and crackdowns as strict as Dartmouth College, which announced in January a prohibition on hard alcohol on campuses.
Vanderbilt administrators have established rules on campus they hope will combat binge drinking, but the university's proximity to so many bars presents an added challenge.
"We know that simply doing policy changes is not enough," said Katherine Drotos Cuthbert, Vanderbilt's coordinator for alcohol education.
Drotos Cuthbert said her office spends a lot of its time on programming that aims to educate students on the dangers of binge drinking, on or off campus.
All students are required to complete a brief alcohol training course. Drotos Cuthbert and her staff also target specific groups for added training, including student athletes and international students.
Noting the inescapable link between alcohol and sexual violence, Drotos Cuthbert teams with Vanderbilt's Project Safe Center to educate students about the changing nature of consent when alcohol is in the picture.
At Lipscomb University, officials encourage students to approach alcohol with a "counter-cultural" outlook, said Josh Roberts, dean of student development. Traditional undergraduate students are prohibited from drinking alcohol on or off campus.
Despite the strict rules, students are encouraged to discuss alcohol, and the ramifications of addiction. Last semester, a fraternity worked to bring police to campus with drunk driving simulators. And on Wednesday, the university is hosting a former NCAA athlete who was kicked out of law school because of alcohol abuse.
Although violations can and do happen, with a wide array of outcomes that depend on the specific student and situation, Roberts said he believes Lipscomb's policy encourages students to keep academics as their top priority at school.
Meanwhile, students continue to make drinking a part of their college life.
Around midnight of a Friday, a group at a bar a couple blocks from the Vanderbilt campus, gathered in a circle to take shots. Blurred Lines played as the group cheered.
The singer's voice rose above theirs: "You know you want it, you know you want it."
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