Alcohol use at DU: Creating a dialogue


Photo by Jack Roberts on 5/26/16

Denver, CO, May 25, 2016- Detox.  Detox is a word no DU student wants to hear.  Of the hundreds of times I’ve heard that word muttered, shouted, or groaned in my three years at the University of Denver it has never been in a positive tone, at least from a student.  However, many students fail to take a step back, look at the big picture, and understand that the sole point of detox is the student’s well-being.

There is a rift between the student body and the administration that will require work and compromise from both sides to mend.  The point of contact between with two sides on a night to night basis is Campus Safety (or Campo), and they tend to be thought of as the bad guys.

After sitting down with Sergeant of Community Partnership James Johnston, and Community Resource officer Morgan Sellers, of DU Campus Safety, it turns out they are just doing their job and serving higher level administrators.

It is important to layout the timeline of a student being taken to detox.  To begin, 86% of all alcohol related incidents that Campo receives are from on-campus resident housing staff.  An officer must respond to every one of these calls.  Upon arrival on the scene, the officer conducts an initial sobriety test followed by a cognitive test and a breathalyzer.  If any sign of intoxication arises, a campus safety officer must call a paramedic, because the officer is no longer medically trained to handle the situation.  After this point, the outcome for the student is out of campus safety’s control.

Campo Stats

This chart displays student outcomes after an alcohol related incident over the last two years. Via DU Campus Safety

Once a paramedic responds, one of four things can happen.  They are ranked in order from most common outcome to least common, according to Johnston and Sellers.

  • Student is sent to detox
  • Student is sent to hospital
  • Student is let go
  • Student is sent to jail

This breaks the commonly held perception that Campo is out to get students on a nightly basis, at least to some extent.  In fact, the majority of cases do not even originate with an officer.

Moving forward, Sgt. Johnston, a DU alum himself, made the following comment about his staff’s outlook towards students and alcohol.

“The kid who is sitting in J-Mac as we speak, drinking beers and playing X-Box with his roommate, we don’t care about him.  No one in this office cares about him.  The people we are worried about are the ones who drink from 8 p.m. until the bars close and then are at risk of walking into the middle of the street or making another stupid decision”

Regardless of whether or not Campus Safety looks out to send students to detox, the crucial question remains, “Is detox the safest and best option for overly intoxicated students?”

Sgt. Johnston was comfortable with sending students to detox, yet noted some glaring downsides as well.

“The main point remains: prevent death, aspiration and paralysis” Johnston said “but students being let out of a facility, downtown, often times with a dead cell phone or without a wallet doesn’t seem like the safest situation.”

Brad Farlow (name changed) a current sophomore at DU went to detox his freshman year, and his experience speaks to Johnston’s concerns.

“They released me at around 4:30 a.m. and basically kicked me out on the street.  I didn’t know where I was an my phone was dead, so I had to walk to a gas station and charge my phone to call an uber” Farlow said, “It was honestly a little bit sketchy”.

Stories like this have been common at DU for a long time.  I personally have heard of students waking with other drunk tank patrons attempting to steal their shoes, and have also heard of students being mugged after they are released.

For clarification, The Denver Cares Detox Facility is not only DU students, it is a public drunk tank.  Students are thrown in with the general public, whom the Denver Police Department needed to go to the drunk tank.  Many DU students have spoken out about not being comfortable with others in the facility.

While the actual time spent in the detox facility may keep students safe from drinking related injury or death, the purpose is defeated, to some measure, once they are sent out downtown with minimal resources, and still exhausted or hungover.

Newly elected undergrad student president Tess Greenwald is very passionate about changing the way detox works at DU. One idea she had was to provide students with a free Uber ride back to campus, upon their release from the detox facility.  This would give students the ease of mind that they have a safe, immediate ride home once they are sober enough to be released.

Sgt. Johnston confirmed that a variation of this idea is already in use.  DU has given Denver Cares cab vouchers that they are instructed to give to students upon release.  This is a great step, and it is not unreasonable to think the school will step into this decade, by providing Ubers or Lyfts instead of cabs in the near future.

While it probably won’t happen during her term, Greenwald envisions an on-campus detox facility, for only DU students.  This would eliminate the need for transportation, the risk of altercations with the general public in the drunk tank, and be easier for the university to monitor.

“Throwing a wasted 18 year old girl into a public drunk tank with dozens of other intoxicated adults is ridiculous” Greenwald said, “an on campus site would be much safer and easier for all parties involved.”

Sgt. Johnston agreed with Greenwald’s idea, and even mentioned the idea had been discussed before, however the cost and added liability proved to be the main obstacles.

Granted a large on-campus construction project would be very costly, it seems that a growing, prominent private institution such as DU could find or raise the money to make a significant investment in their student’s health and safety.

The added liability issue is one that must be looked at from all angles.  On one hand, DU is private university, and if something were to happen to a student at an on-campus detox facility they would be at fault, and liable to massive lawsuits.

However, for parents and students, the idea that an intoxicated student is shipped downtown into an unknown scenario, just because the university is afraid of a lawsuit seems rather frustrating.

The student body must work with student life, campus safety and the administration to work out a scenario where an on-campus detox could work.  This goes along with the main theme that came out of the interviews with officers Johnston and Sellers, along with president Greenwald.

In order for a community to thrive, all stakeholders must be transparent and work together to work towards a common goal.  Right now, student life is preaching abstinence from alcohol for students under 21.  While this is obviously following federal law, even Sgt. Johnston mentioned that the policy seemed ignorant.

“College kids are gonna drink, we get that” Johnston said, “we just have to do our part to give them the education and knowledge to do so in a safe and fun way”.

A dialogue needs to start between these parties, so that the community can begin to make positive changes that make everyone happy, and keep everyone safe.

This is on the students, just as much as it is on the administration.  Sgt. Johnston mentioned that quarterly meetings are held to give students the chance to talk with campus safety, yet only one or two students tend to show up to any given meeting.

If all parties can take accountability, and begin to trust each other everyone can accomplish their goals, which in this case are incredibly similar.

Students want to attain a higher education, grow as people and have a damn fun time while doing so, and all the university wants is for them to reach this goal in one piece.

So, lets take action, begin a dialogue and start to pave the way, to change the drinking and detox culture at DU, so future students can enjoy this amazing place without feeling persecuted by the administration.


Jack Roberts

MFJS 2140 Reporter


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