The debate on drinking: the discussion of nine alcohol-related deaths

Katherine Shaw’s son died at 20, before he started college, before he got married, even before the law gave him the responsibility to choose whether or not to drink.

Tevis Shaw chose to anyway.

That decision led to his death two years ago during a camping trip at Red River Gorge days before school started. But his mother does not think her son’s age was to blame for his death. Katherine Shaw thinks the solution is teaching responsibility to young people, far before the legal drinking age.

“The problem is we don’t give rights or responsibilities to our young people,” she said. “We treat them like children and then we expect them to know what to do in these types of situations.”

Lowering the drinking age to 18 to encourage responsibility at a younger age has been the subject of recent debate among the 128 college presidents who have signed the Amethyst Initiative, a petition circulating among 2,000 colleges nationwide with a goal to create dialogue.

The list includes Ohio State University, a UK benchmark, as well as Duke University and Syracuse University.

Missing from the list is UK President Lee Todd, who said he has no plans to sign onto the project anytime soon. The main reason Todd said he will not join the growing list of signatories is that the group presents no hard data to back up its argument on its Web site,

“If they don’t have data, how are they going to debate?” Todd said. “They must have information that they think they can bring forward in order to make it a real debate.”

Nine UK students have died in alcohol-related incidents in the past seven years – six of whom were underage. But beyond these hard figures, few statistics are readily available that compare accidents before and after 1998, when UK became a dry campus.

UK Police keep records on hand only for the last five years. The Kernel requested past and present records, but was told past records will take several months to compile. Once the records are available, the Kernel will report the content.

Nationwide, about 1,700 college students between 18 and 24 die and nearly 600,000 are injured each year in alcohol-related incidents, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The only university president in Kentucky to sign the petition so far is Murray State University’s Randy Dunn. He signed to help reform a “culture of drinking” on campuses across the country, Dunn said.

“You have underage youth binge drinking. You have emergencies not being reported because underage youth are being arrested,” Dunn said. “What that does is it pushes it farther off campus. … It’s moving off campus, and it’s becoming clandestine.”

Changing the drinking policy to avoid binge drinking off campus and students who don’t report incidents is only one side of the story, Todd said.

“The other thing that you don’t hear now is that when kids drink on campus, those kids will drive to campus, drink and drive home,” Todd said. “So, I don’t know of anybody who can show it is better one way or another.”

UK has been a dry campus since 1998. Alcohol is banned in the dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses, and at student events. An exception is a limited number of faculty events, Todd said.

Todd said UK’s alcohol policy has been effective, although at the beginning of the year there are students that drink when “they’ve got time on their hands and maybe some of that initial freedom.”

“We’ve had some real tragic instances happen the past couple of years at the beginning of the year,” Todd said. “It just breaks your heart. You’ve got kids who are opening up a new doorway to their lives. Their parents are excited, their families are excited, and then there’s a quick termination to their dreams.”

Michael Muth lost his son Brian in the fall of 2004 when he was struck by a tractor-trailer while crossing New Circle Road. Brian, 19, had been drinking at a party earlier that night.

Almost exactly a year later, Thomas Joesph Byers III was killed crossing train tracks while running from police breaking up a party. Byers, 19, had also been drinking. Michael Muth blames the deaths of his son and Byers on the size of off-campus parties.

“You’ve got to stop the parties from getting that size,” said Michael Muth after Byers’ death in 2005. “Somewhere along the line, someone has to decide what a life is worth.”

To cut down on the size of parties for the last few years, UK Police and the Lexington Police Department have employed 12 officers whose sole responsibility during the first weeks of school is to patrol campus and keep parties under control.

“I take (student deaths) real personal,” said Interim Police Chief Joe Monroe. “My job is to make sure students are safe.”

Last year, 411 people were arrested by UK Police for driving under the influence, intoxication and minor in possession charges. Of those, 54 were minor in possession charges.

Learning from the past

Past student deaths haven’t kept all students from drinking as they kick off the new school year.

Drinking with friends on his porch near campus Saturday night, 19-year-old sophomore Danny Corbett said that he and a few friends had received citations the night before after one tried to buy beer with a fake ID at CVS Pharmacy.

“The very next night we were trying to get some (alcohol),” Corbett said, smiling and sipping his drink.

For parties like the one at his house Saturday, at which all of the dozen or so attendees on the porch said they were underage, Corbett said he was not too concerned that the police would come because if no one causes a disturbance, there is no reason for police to get involved.

“Not everyone is OK with underage drinking, but if you’re having fun and in control, what’s wrong with it?” he said.

For Curt Hargrove, it took best friend Eric Vetter’s death in November 2002 to change his view on partying. Vetter, 19, died after being struck by a drunk driver while crossing the intersection of South Limestone and Cooper Drive. Vetter was legally drunk.

“We used to party harder than anybody and never think of the consequences,” Hargrove said in 2002.

Vetter’s roommate, Nick Volz, also said Vetter’s death changed his life forever.

“It changed my perspective,” he said after his friend’s death. “It comes down to human beings. People are so important.”

Related content:

Katherine Shaw’s response to this story