When Alcohol-Related Accidents Aren’t Just Accidents

A population and public health perspective on party culture at UC Berkeley.

by Zoe So

Last month’s successful screening of GOAT (sponsored by ASUC Superb and Hazing Prevention Week) brought significant attention to the dangerous party culture that seems to go hand in hand with college life. While UC Berkeley has strict anti-hazing policies for all fraternities, sororities, and other student organizations affiliated with the school or not, party culture and binge drinking still very much exist; in the first two weekends of this fall semester, the Berkeley Police Department wrote 551 alcohol-related citations and made 17 in-custody arrests — their highest rate yet.

In a guest lecture by Sarah Gamble Ph.D. in Public Health 198: “Social, Ethical, and Political Issues in Public Health,” she recounted the story of Jeffrey Engler, a Cal student who drunkenly fell to his death from the roof of a fraternity. She then spoke about Vaibehv Loomba, who died of alcohol poisoning at another frat party, then about Apoorve Agarwal, who fell down the stairs and to his death at a party on Piedmont. Agarwal’s blood alcohol content was .31, a fatally high amount. Gamble proceeded to emphasize that this series of alcohol-related deaths were not separate, individual tragedies — they were part of a population problem. The study of public health means looking at trends in negative health outcomes of populations, figuring out from where they stem, and preventing them from happening — and that is why the problem of alcohol-related injuries at UC Berkeley is especially relevant.

When asked about the notable increase in alcohol-related citations, Gamble expressed that there is no one way to reduce alcohol-related injuries. She gives credit to the police for the citations, because they remind students that what they are doing is against the law and warn them of more severe punishments if they are ever caught in a non-college setting. She says these citations are “an important educational moment and may save [students] from getting into some real trouble in a less college-focused environment,” like San Francisco. She believes that the best way to bring down rates of alcohol-related harm is a balance of prevalence reduction (the police approach) as well as harm reduction (the public health approach), which, Gamble says, “I think we do have on this campus.”

PartySafe@Cal is an organization that focuses on harm reduction by “advocat[ing for] improving party culture and social benefits by decreasing problems related to alcohol.” It runs risk management education programs, holds ongoing roundtables that connect students to the campus, and provides resources for the student body. One major way that PartySafe@Cal is changing the party scene at UC Berkeley is that it makes hosts more responsible for their guests, and students more responsible for their peers. Hard alcohol at parties is now banned from being served in public spaces, putting party throwers at the helm of limiting alcohol intake for others. The Responsible Bystander Policy allows students and campus-recognized student organizations to safely report an alcohol or controlled substance emergency, without the fear of being subject to the student conduct process, making party goers responsible for each other. The #OurHouse Campaign has also been a driving force behind some of the rules that parties now have to follow, including providing easily accessible water, requiring the presence of sober hosts and trained alcohol servers, and having security measures to keep each party under capacity.

PartySafe@Cal has done so much to create a safer, more enjoyable environment at UC Berkeley. Its public health efforts have changed the way parties at Cal are held, and it will continue to expand its reach until all students are on board.

Special thanks to Professor Sarah Gamble and to Karen Hughes, who runs PartySafe@Cal, for discussing the campaigns with The Public Health Advocate