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Community seeks answers to binge drinking

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This poster reminds students at Minnesota State University in Moorhead that most of their peers drink responsibly. (MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
A series of tragic events in northwestern Minnesota has refocused attention on underage binge drinking. Excessive alcohol is blamed for the deaths of two college students. Another young man lies in a Fargo hospital because he drank too much, too fast. Everyone agrees there is a problem, but finding a solution is difficult.

Moorhead, Minn. — In the past year, doctors at Fargo's Meritcare Hospital have treated 30 young people for binge drinking. All of them were under the age of 21.

On Halloween, Mike Huckfeldt, 18, of Fergus Falls drank with friends for hours. Then he fell 35 feet from a roof and sustained a traumatic brain injury. Huckfeldt remains hospitalized, but has moved out of the critical care unit and is listed in satisfactory condition.

When the incident occurred, Huckfeldt's parents, Val and Mike did not want to speak publicly. Mike says they knew their son drank, but they didn't think it was a problem. Their son had been a responsible kid, someone who wasn't a troublemaker.

Mike said they decided to go public, hoping they might spare someone the pain they're dealing with.

"Very much of an eye-opener, but, too late though," said Mike Huckfeldt. "My whole family is very devastated by the whole incident. As far as an eye-opener, it's well beyond that."

The elder Huckfeldt said his family remains in shock. They've never dealt with anything that would prepare them for a situation like this.

It's very difficult for the Huckfeldts to speak about their son, especially at a hospital news conference before television cameras and a dozen reporters.

Val Huckfeldt clutched her son's photograph, while her husband spoke in clipped tones about how other parents can avoid this tragedy -- and what to do when they discover their children are drinking.

"It needs to be taken care of quickly when we see signs of this," said Huckfeldt. "We need to be there for them, and put them in a treatment facility or whatever it takes to take care of it before something tragic like this happens."

Many people are applauding the Huckfeldts' decision to talk about their family's tragedy. Frank Sepe is one of the physicians treating Huckfeldt's son. Sepe says efforts to curb binge drinking must start with parents.

"The change has got to be made at home, and if this represents the start, I feel like we can get this under control," says Sepe.

Sepe says he hopes the Huckfeldts' story makes an impression on other parents. He says it's critical that parents realize underage drinking is a serious problem that they have to deal with.

It's a point of view shared by Fargo Municipal Judge Tom Davies.

"I think there is a hole in people's heads where the brain is supposed to be, when it comes to dealing with their children," says Davies.

Davies sees a steady parade of underage drinkers in his courtroom. Davies says last month, 200 kids appeared in his court -- all of them minors in possession of alcohol.

Davies says penalties should force kids to take a hard look at their drinking habits. He says now, punishment for underage drinking isn't consistent.

"In our court you get a $150 fine, and in every case you get a referral to ... chemical dependency evaluation or some tool to try and determine if you have a problem," says Davies.

Davies say other judges are more tolerant than he is. Some impose a small fine and defer the sentence. That means if the person charged with the offense stays out of trouble and doesn't get caught again, the incident is wiped off their record.

Getting binge drinking under control is a hot topic in the Fargo-Moorhead area, because of the recent deaths of two young men which have been linked to binge drinking. Last March, Jason Reinhardt, 21, died after a binge drinking incident celebrating his birthday.

In September, the body of Patrick Kycia, 19, was found in the Red River. Kycia was last seen drinking at a Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity party, the same fraternity house where Jason Reinhardt died.

The deaths stunned the community, but binge drinking has been a problem for a long time.

Kevin Thompson, professor in the criminal justice department at North Dakota State University, has done extensive research on binge drinking. He says the way kids drink is part of the problem.

"Instead of just sitting in a pub with a 12-ounce beer in front of them, and knowing full well when they've had three or four beers, now they're drinking shots," says Thompson, "they're drinking out of vessels at a party where large quantities of alcohol are dumped down their throats, and they have no clue how much alcohol they're intaking."

Thompson believes one way to address the problem is to require strict penalties for minors arrested for any alcohol violation. He thinks suspending driving privileges is one way to get their attention.

Both Thompson and Judge Tom Davies agree tougher penalties might help. But they say there is a bigger problem. The message society sends through advertising and liquor marketing makes drinking appealing, especially to young people.

Susanne Williams works at Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Her job is convincing kids that drinking can be lethal. She says when Jason Reinhardt died last March, the school surveyed students on their drinking habits.

The results show that 73 percent of MSUM students drink once a week, and 61 percent say they have between one and five drinks a week.

Williams says students are conditioned to think that excessive drinking is normal behavior at college. Kids have heard stories from friends and relatives about wild parties when they were in college. They've seen movies that portray college as a time to cut loose. The marketing of alcohol makes it seem drinking is all harmless fun.

Williams says the survey results are designed to show students that's not true. Soon, she says, students will be seeing posters across campus with the survey results. The idea is to convince them that binge drinking isn't normal behavior. Williams admits, though, the campaign won't change people's attitudes overnight.

"A year from now I hope I can say, yep we got all the messages out there, the campaign unfolded the way that we planned, and people are responding positively to it," says Williams. "Will I be able to provide any tangible results for what's going on, and substantive change? Not yet."

Williams says if students are told that excessive drinking isn't normal behavior, they'll drink less. The approach is called social norm.

Some students aren't optimistic about the plan. Chris Braddock, a sophomore at MSUM, says students need more than posters and statistics to change their behavior.

"I think we need to hear some frank discussion from our peers about the situation, and then maybe we'll start to listen," says Braddock. "I think the social norm posters were just one among how many hung around campus that we choose to look or not look at? Between the posters and the numbers, I think the intent got lost in the message."

Minnesota State University-Moorhead offers freshmen an optional course on the dangers of drinking. Braddock says the school should offer training to students on practical matters -- for example, what should you do when an intoxicated student passes out? He says hearing from older students about their experiences with alcohol might also help.

School officials say they're willing to consider any approach that will curb excessive drinking.

Braddock says there is no easy solution to the problem of binge drinking, but he is encouraged that more people are aware of the problem, and are making an effort to change people's behavior.