Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Two Student deaths at Queens likely result of alcohol: coroner

By James Bradshaw, Globe and Mail, May 31, 2011
 Six Queen’s students have died in little more than a year, though not all the deaths were linked to drinking. Still, when two teenage students fell to their deaths two months apart last year, alcohol was ruled a factor both times, making the cohesive, spirited school an emblem of national efforts to take the danger out of campus party culture.
A coroner’s report released Tuesday recommended Queen’s accelerate a review of its policies and take steps to alter an unhealthy “culture of drinking on campus,” including removing jurisdiction over alcohol-related misbehaviour from a student judiciary that rules on non-academic offences.
The report also argues Queen’s needs to expand educational initiatives, and even says the school should consider the feasibility of getting student permission to search residence rooms for alcohol.
Queen’s principal Daniel Woolf stopped short of promising to adopt all the suggestions, but said the school will discuss the recommendations through an alcohol working group under way since January.
He also said allowing students who break the rules to be disciplined by their peers – a unique privilege Queen’s students have held since 1898 – “has served Queen’s very well,” even as Kingston regional supervising coroner Roger Skinner said he “had concerns that the system was not an effective means of dealing with alcohol use.”
Excessive drinking by university students is not a phenomenon exclusive to Queeen's. However, there is no question that public focus on the deaths resulting from excess consumption of alcohol at Queen's is a stain on what is seen by many as a platinum reputation for a contemporary university.
Even this report begs questions such as:
  • Why would the principal stop short of agreeing to implement the recommendations of a coroner's report?
  • Why would the policy of having students discipline other students not warrant serious examination from the administration?
  • What is the culture of an institution that sees at least two, of the six deaths attributable to abuse of alcohol?
  • What changes to that culture are being contemplated in order to address the crisis?
This piece does not presume to know the answers to all the many nuances of the issue of student attitudes to alcohol. However, it might be worth a look into the level of perfectionism that is both expected and delivered among Queen's students, and the pressures that such attitudes would inevitably bring to the situation.
Becoming the "Harvard" of the north, as the public reputation of Queen's seeks to attain, is hardly without danger. Words like "preppie," snobbish, exclusive, are more likely to accompany such a pursuit and that, in a Canadian context, could well spark tensions.
This is not Harvard; this is not the state of Massacheusetts; this is not the U.S. And the stronger the attempt to replicate that institution, adn that culture, the more alien will be the results.
Even after the most recent Aberdeen Street bash that has acompanied Homecoming celebrations for several years, when many of the "street drinkers" are not even Queen's students but are interlopers who know how and where to find another opportunity to get drunk, Queen's refused to reimbuse the city of Kingston for even a portion of the extra costs to the city for the extra police protection that the incident generated. So, the public can attest that Queen's, while desperately wanting to say and do all the right things, is less likely to step up to the plate than it could, if that example is any indication of their approach.
There is a move to bridge "town and gown" at Queen's but there is also a need to address some fundamental cultural issues that only those on the inside can determine their severity.

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