Alcohol Prime-Time Killer?

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It seems that just about every time the Tuscaloosa City Council meets, it votes on approving special events retail licenses so that alcohol can be served at events involving University students. There are sometimes more than a dozen applications that are voted on at each meeting. The city’s Revenue Enforcement Manager has frequently described many of the events as “frat parties.” Downtown Entertainment LLC (one of many so named LLCs) is the entity that most frequently applies for the ABC license. One of its representatives  has said that in many cases the responsibility for verifying if those being served alcohol are of legal age is left up to security that provided by the fraternities. The Tuscaloosa Police Department does not have jurisdiction over the fraternity houses that are located on campus.

The City Council is currently at a stalemate over how to regulate bar security. Other cities have ordinances that stipulate the kind of training that employees of bars must have. Since there is such a high turnover of security personnel at local bars, there has been concern expressed at Council Committee meetings over training being prohibitively expensive. Problems at local bars have ranged from fire code violations to shootings. Some establishments have been shut down. But thousands of University of Alabama students frequent the cluster of bars located in the vicinity of the University. Enforcement of laws regarding under aged drinking has been difficult.

A new study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism points out that there has been a dramatic increase in deaths of young people due to alcohol use.

Katelyn Newman in the USA Today article Alcohol Is Growing as a Prime-Time Killer quoted Dr. Gabriel Schnickel: “You see a lot of people, these younger folks who … think they’re drinking the same amount as their friends or same amount as people that they socialize with, but for them, it is doing irreversible damage to their liver. We see a lot of young people come in who are in the throes of alcoholic hepatitis who had no idea that they could end up in that situation and, certainly, the terror in their eyes when they hear that they may need a new liver.”

The University of Alabama has a strict policy on alcohol use that is intended to promote the safety and well being of its students. It says:

Individuals under 21 years of age are not permitted to consume alcohol or be in possession of alcohol. Alcohol paraphernalia (which includes but is not limited to: empty beer cans or bottles, shot glasses, etc.) are prohibited and considered a violation of policy. Individuals over the age of 21 may consume alcohol in designated areas on campus in a safe and responsible manner.

With the recent findings on the severity of the problems associated with alcohol use by young people, it would seem as if there would be a greater urgency in the enforcement of policies and laws on under aged drinking.




T-Town: A One Elephant Town?

Bicentinnial Minerva Statue

The University of Alabama bestowed a statue of the Goddess Minerva to the citizens of Tuscaloosa in commemoration of the city’s Bicentennial Celebration on December 13, 2019.

As soon as the unveiling of the statue at the University’s Manderson Landing, if not beforehand, there were criticisms of the sculpture. Some citizens complained about the University’s choice of the Roman Goddess of Wisdom, in spite of the fact that she adorns the institutional seal of the University. Many people asked why a statue of Chief Tuskaloosa, the city’s namesake, wasn’t erected instead of one of a pagan goddess. Some would have doubtlessly preferred a statue of Jesus or even the football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.  However most people appreciated Caleb O’Connor’s beautifully executed sculpture that was cast in Italy. The walkway  around the statue, designed by Craig R. Wedderspoon, replicated the route of the Black Warrior and was replete with historical milestones of Tuscaloosa’s history.

People who live in Tuscaloosa are acutely aware of the importance of the University and the impact that it has on their daily lives. Tuscaloosa is a “one elephant town.” An elephant is the mascot of the University’s sports teams. The Crimson Tide’s football team perennially wins championships. When a football game is played in Tuscaloosa the town’s population often doubles in size. The University is a major employer and contributes greatly to Tuscaloosa’s cultural life.

Of course, there are complaints about the University, which largely center around the bad behavior of some of its students. A civic group Tuscaloosa Neighbors Together did a survey in 2012 of opinion about living with students. As Jason Morton reported in The Tuscaloosa News, there was an “overwhelming opposition to any kind of student housing within a neighborhood.” Many of the problems that citizens have had with students can be attributed to underaged drinking.

The Historic District in Tuscaloosa has been steadily encroached upon by the University’s student population as the University has grown in size. For over a decade there have been complaints about vandalism, home invasions and property damage by students. Kelly Fitts, president of the Original City Association, once opined in The Tuscaloosa News about the “undesirable late-night activity and crime perpetrated by intoxicated patrons” of drinking establishments that are located in close proximity to the Historic District:

Some of these heavily intoxicated people, many of them young women, wander into our yards and, thinking they are home, try to enter our houses. It is a very dangerous situation that, left unaddressed, will result in dire consequences for the city and the university should someone lose their life.

The City of Tuscaloosa’s wants to create an “experience economy” through its Elevate initiative and the concomitant local sales tax increase. Speaking about the Elevate program at a Council committee meeting, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said:

I tell my staff all the time that I want us to dominate. What I mean is that I want to put into place the investments that will take this community to the next level. That’s why we passed Elevate.

It was never about the status quo Tuscaloosa. When you do something like this you either go bold or go home and we’ve decided to go bold as a community.

We have a sacred responsibility to not let this moment pass us by and to do something significant with it.

Mayor Maddox has raised the possibility of adding public safety fees, in addition to infrastructure fees, that developers must pay to build mega student complexes. He has recognized that there is a need to “slow” the development of student housing. Public safety concerns were heightened by a recent shooting that occurred at a bar located near the University campus. But it was hardly the only such incident at a student bar in Tuscaloosa that has occurred involving gun violence.

Complicating problems associated with student bars is the widespread practice of many drinking establishments serving liquor to underaged students. Most University students are below the legal age of 21 for alcohol sales. The University, according to College Factual‘s “The University of Alabama Student Age Diversity Breakdown”, has 34.5% of its nearly forty thousand students in the 18-19 age group and 30.9% in the 20-21 age group. There have even been complaints about local minors, aged 14-17, hanging out around college bars at night.

The City of Tuscaloosa instituted a curfew on minors because of such concerns. Individuals below the age of eighteen must be off the street after 10 p.m. on any Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday until 6 a.m. the following day and from 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday until 6 a.m. the following day.

Over 900 University students are under the age of eighteen. The city’s curfew ordinance excludes minors who attend the University. But law enforcement officers are taxed with the task of how to enforce the curfew. Should they stop and question any person who appears to be below the age of eighteen? Many University students who are older than eighteen could certainly be mistaken for being eighteen or younger. Many students who are younger than twenty-one frequent establishments that serve alcohol.

The City of Tuscaloosa is investing a great deal of money in its Elevate program. It also will be issuing bonds to pay for projects. In the $503 million Elevate budget the actual amount allocated for projects is just over $250 million. The mayor has also proposed bond issues totaling $143.5 million for 11 of the largest projects. That will result in $138 million of the $503 million budget being spent not on actual projects but on debt finance charges.

One of the Elevate projects The Saban Center, will create a learning center on the Black Warrior River that brings together the Children’s Hands-On Museum, Tuscaloosa Public Library and Tuscaloosa Children’s Theater. The University’s football coach Nick Saban made a $1.25 million contribution to the project.

To help pay for public safety perhaps the City of Tuscaloosa could do as Chicago has done. Chicago has doubled the tax on food and drink served at restaurants and bars by raising it a quarter-percentage point.

Enforcing underaged drinking laws with electronic ID verification (as Oxford, Mississippi has done) may well reduce the popularity of the establishments located near the University that routinely serve minors. Such enforcement would require a good deal of diligence by the police. The city has had a hard time recruiting police officers. Revenue dedicated to public safety could be be used to increase salaries and benefits, in order to attract more people who would be willing to serve in law enforcement and to retain existing officers. The City of Tuscaloosa could also arrange with the University of Alabama to have a joint task force to enforce underaged drinking laws.

To truly “elevate” Tuscaloosa and make it a better place to live will require more diligent public safely measures. Investing in law enforcement is at least as important as building wonderful projects such as the Saban Center. Such measures may reduce the tensions that exist between the citizens of Tuscaloosa and students at the University. When that happens Tuscaloosa can be proud of being, at least in part, A One Elephant Town.

















When Pigs Fly!

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It seems that every time Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Maddox has said anything since 2017 he has bemoaned Tuscaloosa’s loss of sales tax revenues because of online sales. He said that sales taxes had increased but not at a rate commensurate with population growth. In spite of that he had justified spending increases in the 2019 budget because there were “steady increases in property tax revenues” that offset the decline in sales tax revenues.

In January 2019, he proposed a one cent sales tax increase that would generate $250 million to move Tuscaloosa from a retail economy to an “experience-based, technology-driven city.” He called his plan Elevate Tuscaloosa.

In March 2019 the Council voted down the sales tax increase which would have raised the inflated figure of $500 million for Elevate Tuscaloosa over the next ten years. By April the Council voted to reconsider the tax increase, providing that the state approved its request to exempt grocery items from sales taxes. After the state failed to approve the grocery tax reduction, the Council, with a divided vote, in July approved the sales tax increase anyway. Maddox claimed that a reduction in garbage tax fees would compensate for people having to pay more for groceries.

In June the Elevate Tuscaloosa Advisory Council first met. Maddox told its members, “You are where the rubber meets the road.” On many occasions since that first meeting Maddox has said that the Council did not serve as a “rubber stamp” for the city. However when the Advisory Council first voted unanimously in August on its subcommittee’s recommendations its members did not have a synopsis of the subcommittees’ deliberations.

At that first meeting in June of the Advisory Council, Co-chair State Representative Chris England said that he considered himself a pig not a chicken. He said that when eggs and bacon are served for breakfast, it was the result of a pig being “committed” and the chicken merely being “involved.” Another member immediately said that he too was “honored to be a pig.” The members of the Advisory Council all seem to be very committed to Elevate Tuscaloosa.

When Mayor Maddox pitched Elevate Tuscaloosa, he emphasized projects that involved education, parks and recreation and support of an “experience-based” economy. But, according to a knowledgeable source, in the $503 million Elevate budget the actual amount allocated for these sorts of projects is just over $250 million. The mayor has also proposed bond issues totaling $143.5 million for 11 of the largest projects.  That will result in $138 million of the $503 million budget being spent not on actual projects but on debt finance charges.  There is also another $65 million in the Elevate Tuscaloosa Fund and Operations and Maintenance expenses that would have previously come out of the General Fund.

One of those projects involves paving the airport runway at a cost of about $14 million. The runway is not certified to handle the weight of larger aircraft, such as the 737s that are used to transport the University of Alabama’s football team. A waiver is required from the airline charter company to schedule those flights. One of the charter companies involved has purportedly told airport management that it will no longer grant such waivers. Upgrading the 28 year old runway will require not only paving but also reinforcing the runway’s subsurface.

The City has applied for an FAA grant to upgrade the runway but the FAA has not yet approved it. (In September 2019, an FAA grant for $450,000 was awarded, but its purpose was to cover only the design work.) If the full upgrade grant is approved, it will provide 80-90% in matching funds, with the city only making up the balance. If the final work on the runway begins before the grant is approved, which could take over a year to secure, it is unlikely that federal funds will be available retroactively. Maddox has said that he expects the runway work to proceed this year.

At the September 17th meeting of the Council City Projects Committee preliminary design contracts were approved for projects, including the Riverwalk, Bama Theater and Parks and Recreation. Maddox said that the Council had already recommended a large percentage of the projects.

Any costs associated with them are estimates. The final, actual costs won’t be known until the full scope of the projects are known. Upon completion those contracted will receive a percentage of the construction costs.

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On September 24th the City Council approved its combined $235.9 million fiscal 2019 budget. It also passed the first two resolutions that allocated money to Elevate projects. One authorized a funding agreement for $500,000 with PARA for Phase I of the All Inclusive Playground. The other authorized a payment of $18,000 for a transit study. The money which came from the General Fund will be reimbursed from Elevate funds when they become available.

Elevate Tuscaloosa has been criticized as only being a scheme to pay for the costs of projects which could not be funded by the General Fund. The sales tax increase to fund Elevate Tuscaloosa was not welcomed by many taxpayers in Tuscaloosa. It was only imposed after the Council had at first rejected it. Then, it was approved by a split Council vote. Since it will be necessary for the city to issue bonds to pay for many Elevate projects, a significant amount of the additional sales tax revenue will be used to defray the financial costs of the bonds.

As one person who has also followed the history of Elevate Tuscaloosa put it: “The mayor advocated for the new sales tax using an argument that the revenue would be a new, unique source of revenue available for projects now out of reach with current revenues (Elevate projects), but is now being used to supplement routine activities that should be funded from the general fund.  Additionally, by borrowing future revenues to pay for projects now with revenues that will be collected over the next decade or so, we are incurring additional costs for interest on debt.”


District 4 & the Machine



Since 1997 twenty year olds have run successfully for the Tuscaloosa City Council District Four seat, mostly unopposed. They have all been thought to have been associated with the University of Alabama’s Machine in some way.

According to the Business Insider exposé written by Peter Jacobs in 2013:

The Machine’s influence is not just limited to the UA campus. The New York Times reported last month that a losing candidate for the Tuscaloosa City Board of Education filed a lawsuit after a SGA president and Machine candidate was elected on a wave of Greek voting.

UA sorority members were offered free drinks and limo rides if they voted in the City Board of Education elections, according to an email sent out to at least one sorority. Members were encouraged to vote for former SGA president Cason Kirby and fellow UA alumnus Lee Garrison, both of whom ended up winning their respective district.

Local news reported that some Greeks listed their fraternity house as their residence to vote in Kirby’s district, even though they no longer lived there.

 In 2013 WVUA also reported: “More than 10 unrelated people are registered to vote in a single house, and if some residents are not residing there, they could be guilty of perjury.”

In 1997 Lee Garrison was the first student elected as a District Four Council member. A December 28, 1997 Tuscaloosa News article “Election Contested” described the election challenge that Garrison’s opponent filed:

What is a resident? That has become the central issue that could decide whether Councilman Lee Garrison retains the Tuscaloosa City Council District 4 seat he won by 84 votes in the August election. Opponent Don Brown contested the election claiming Garrison benefited from the illegal votes, largely cast by students who don’t need residency requirements.

A University of Alabama senior and former Inter-fraternity Council President, Garrison and his forces registered hundreds of college students to vote. One of the issues became whether students or permanent residents could control the district election. 

While Brown’s forces did not challenge enough votes to make up the difference in Garrison’s margin of victory, his attorneys have been successful in putting voters, mostly students, on the witness stand. They were questioned about where they consider their primary residence and some were required to reveal who they voted for.  

Virtually nonexistent residency requirements leave the outcome completely in doubt. Should circuit Judge Bernard Harwood overturn Garrisons victory, a lengthy appeal is expected.

Garrison’s victory was not overturned. He went on to serve four terms on the Council until he successfully ran for the local school board Chair in 2013.

He was followed in the District Four Council seat by Matt Calderone, who had been the President of the University of Alabama’s Student Government Association (SGA) in 2012. Calderone had no challenger in the election.

There has been a record of SGA Presidents being  members of fraternities affiliated with The Machine. Calderone belonged to Sigma Nu. Due to the highly secretive nature of The Machine, what Greek organizations are members of The Machine cannot be verified.

The students who were registered to vote in a single house in University Circle in 2013 were all reportedly Sigma Nu members.

Calderone in 2019 announced that he would step down from his position as Council member for District Four. In the specially called election for the position there were initially three candidates. Lee Busby was a retired Marine infantry officer. John Earl was a retired photographer. And thirty-seven year-old Craig Williams owned the downtown restaurants Central Mesa and the Avenue Pub.

At a meeting of the Original City Association Williams said that he had never been in a fraternity at the University of Alabama and was not part of The Machine. He also said that he knew Calderone well and had been encouraged by him to run. It seemed as if there would be no “Machine candidate” for the first time in over twenty years.

Then Williams dropped out of the race, citing his commitment to his family, business and employees. On the same day that Williams withdrew his candidacy Frank Fleming entered the race. Jason Morton in the Tuscaloosa News reported:

Fleming’s announcement came within hours of Craig Williams, owner of The Avenue Pub and Central Mesa, saying Monday that he was exiting the race over “unforeseen circumstances.”

Fleming said this was a deciding factor in his joining the race.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a while pretty seriously,” Fleming said. “I was actually really close with Matt Calderone and saw the hard work he did and I want to just build on that.”

Fleming, 28, joins Lee Busby, 62, and John Earl, 72, in vying for the District 4 seat that represents the University of Alabama campus, the neighboring historic districts and parts of downtown Tuscaloosa.

Sidney Frank Fleming was sometimes known as Sidney at the University of Alabama. He was a fellow member of Sigma Nu along with Calderone. He had registered to vote in 2013 but didn’t cast a ballot. Many of his frat brothers of course who did vote were part of a court case.

The case which was ultimately heard by the Alabama Supreme Court dealt with what would constitute a “domicile.” The legal requirements to be considered a resident involved such things as where people register their cars, where they file taxes, where their grades are sent, etc.  Student residency doesn’t just mean living in a place for 30 days, but is supposed to involve the long-term intent of residents. Enforcement of such requirements is another thing entirely.

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Merely having been in a fraternity at the University that was associated with The Machine certainly doesn’t mean that Sidney is this year’s version of a “Machine candidate” running for the District Four seat.

During Garrison’s time serving on the Council, District Four was redrawn to exclude neighborhoods that had traditionally been occupied by permanent residents.


The redrawing of the district map made the student vote even more significant.

Many students at the University don’t care about voting. The bloc of voters orchestrated by The Machine has been the deciding factor in elections.

Will the 2019 City Council election be a repeat of the School Board election in 2013?

The District 4 polling place was swamped by students, many of whom were wearing tee-shirts commemorating the Greek Fest, the Old Row or displaying other Greek themes. They came from Tennessee, Oregon, Georgia, California and other states to vote for candidates who were running in a local school board race in Alabama. The students more than likely were required to return to their Houses wearing the “I voted” stickers that they were given after voting. One person sympathetic to Horwitz said that she wished she could have stood outside the polling place with a roll of stickers and handed them out to students to save them the trouble of casting ballots.

According to a poll worker some students were so unfamiliar with the voting process that, once they were checked off the list of registered voters, they forgot to pick up their ballots. Others left their drivers license, which many had used as an ID, on the tables where they marked their ballot. Some showed up not knowing if they were registered in Tuscaloosa or in another city. There were an unusually large number of “provisional ballots” cast due to uncertainties about voter eligibility.

That’s not likely. But will another twenty year old be elected to the District Four seat with a little help from his friends, some of whom may be students who belong to fraternities associated with The Machine?







Teens Drinking in the Movies & TV

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Cristel Antonia Russell (American University Kogod School of Business) has written an intriguing article about the prevalence of teenagers drinking in movies and television. In her article From ‘Pretty Little Liars’ to ‘The OC,’ television producers need to stop encouraging teen drinking – here’s how they can Russell writes, “you don’t have to look hard to find 16-year-olds sneaking a drink from a flask or getting drunk at a party.”

She explained this phenomena:

The majority of TV shows teens watch depict characters drinking alcohol, often heavily, with few negative consequences. Sometimes, alcohol brands that appear are placed there purposefully by alcohol companies.

Alcohol companies are prohibited from advertising their products to teenagers on billboard near schools or buying commercial time during programs in which the majority of the audience is under 21. But there isn’t an explicit ban on paying to have their brand appear in a television show. This practice is called product placement.

In the United States, alcohol promotion is largely regulated through voluntary industry marketing codes. These codes forbid alcohol advertising in media, including digital media, where 28% of the projected audience is under 21.

In the absence of independent oversight, alcohol companies have long realized that product placement provides a relatively easy way to get around these regulations, to the increasing worry of consumer advocates.

Alcohol is one of the most actively placed product categories in Hollywood TV programs and movies. The growth of product placement consistently outpaces that of traditional advertising.

She produced trial programs that were funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Some of the episodes which included teen drinking had epilogues that featured the main character correcting the pro-drinking message in the story.

Half the participants saw the epilogue in which a main character talked directly to the camera to say: “What you see on TV is not real. You do not need to drink to look cool and fit in.” The other half saw the episode without an epilogue.

Though viewers who were immersed in the pro-alcohol story line reported more favorable attitudes toward drinkers and higher drinking intentions following the episode, we also found a hopeful outcome.

The epilogue was able to correct this influence, but only for viewers who were aware that they were being persuaded to buy a product. In other words, the epilogue had the most corrective power for those viewers who were both transported by the story and recognized someone was selling them something.

Is there any wonder that under-aged drinking is so prevalent at schools such as the University of Alabama, which has a strict policy about alcohol use? Just as the producers of mass entertainment profit from the promotion of under-aged drinking, the providers of alcohol in Tuscaloosa also find the temptation of “easy money” hard to resist.

The legacy of the 1978 movie Animal House has been eclipsed by the ubiquitous depiction of teen drinkers in popular media. Perhaps that is why the idea of free limo rides and booze for students that voted in the Tuscaloosa school board election in 2013 didn’t seem so far fetched?


Making Anti-drinking Rules Stick

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Colleges Have Anti-Drinking Rules on the Books, but Which Ones Actually Work?” The conclusions of the study include:

Among strategies that work best, the researchers say, are prohibiting alcohol in public places on the campus (including sports arenas) and at student-organization recruitment events, as well as banning tailgating, drinking games, and alcohol delivery to the campus. Rules like that, the report’s authors say, not only restrict alcohol consumption but also are “likely to influence social norms around drinking.” Banning drinking at events like recruiting events in the fall “sets the normative tone for the school year.”

Also important, the study suggests: Make sure students know exactly what consequences will follow which infractions. And make sure they know that if they’re cited or arrested off campus by the local police, the college will be notified.

Penalties deemed to work best have a “strong, population-wide deterrent effect,” the report says. Those include “student-organization probation and loss of student-organization status.”

Less effective, but still useful as part of a “ ‘package’ of graduated sanctions,” are suspension and probation. “Because of their severity and the extended deliberative process often required to enforce them,” they “become less swift and certain.”

The University of Alabama’s alcohol policy, if strictly enforced, would certainly curtail illegal, under-aged drinking on campus.

Kafka’s article continues:

For students to heed colleges’ alcohol rules, they have to be able to find and understand them. That’s a problem. Alcohol policies for colleges in the Maryland group could generally be found by students within 30 seconds, although the rules were spread out across multiple locations instead of just one web page.

But colleges need to simplify the language in those policies. Even the clearest rules, the study found, “would be considered difficult, confusing, and best understood by someone with at least some college education.”

He points out that the success of enforcement strategies was “deemed beyond the scope of this study.”

This nationwide problem will only be successfully dealt with when individual educational institutions begin to access how they are enforcing their own policies. Alabama’s Capstone of higher education has an opportunity to be a vanguard by enforcing its own policies.




Rape, Binge Drinking & Frats


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An Atlantic article “Why It Matters Where College Students Binge-Drink” by Ashley Fetters claims that “hot spots” where binge drinking occurs are associated with campus date rape.

Some might argue that individual students’ misconduct is more to blame for sexual assault than any frat house or party hot spot. But according to a new study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, party locations do play a role in increasing the frequency of sexually aggressive behavior. The study followed the partying and hookup behaviors of more than 1,000 straight men over four semesters, from the beginning of their freshman year. It found that men’s attendance at “drinking venues”—that is, bars and parties—was a better predictor of their sexual aggression than simply binge-drinking or enthusiastic attitudes toward casual sex.

The study’s authors “point to the need for better supervision—and enforcement—on the parts of bar owners and university administrators.”

At the University of Alabama where most students are too young to legally drink and there is a strict alcohol policy you might expect that fraternities would not become “drinking venues.” The question would be: Is there any significant enforcement of the Capstone’s policy on under-aged drinking and alcohol on campus?

On other campuses quite often action has been taken by University administrations only when a death due to “hazing” has resulted from alcohol use. But sometimes sexual assaults are involved as well as in the case at the University of Texas where a moratorium on all social activities by fraternities and sororities was issued.

CNN‘s 2015 documentary “The Hunting Ground” provided a harrowing look at campus sexual assaults. Indiana University’s Elizabeth Armstrong said, “Clearly there are men who think it is OK to have sex with a woman who is very intoxicated, even passed out.”

Banning fraternities outright would be one way to cope with the epidemic of college date rapes.  Swarthmore, after protests by its students over a “rape attic” and a “rape tunnel” at a fraternity on campus, has recently closed all of its fraternities. The Pennsylvania college has yet to end its leases with fraternities.

At the University of Alabama, where its Greek life is such an important campus tradition, such a ban would irreparably damage the school’s character. A better idea would be to increase enforcement of the University’s own policies and also the city codes on under-aged alcohol use.