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What's the Worst That Could Happen If You Drink Too Much?

Seen from above, clothing dries on the stairs of a sports field being used by residents displaced one week after the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti.
Seen from above, clothing dries on the stairs of a sports field being used by residents displaced one week after the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti.

Emergency room doctor Louis Profeta wants college students to know what happens the day after someone spends the night drinking too much.

He describes a dorm room where the smell of feces and urine fills the air and how a roommate trips over his fraternity brother, now lying dead on the floor after a night of five vodka slammers, one after another.

"Dead, waxy, with rock-still, clouded eyes ... you could never envision a stare so distant," Profeta writes on his blog. "You played pickup basketball yesterday at the campus rec center and … now, he is so still, laying among the pile of yet-to-be-washed clothes or wrapped up in a blanket on a [urine]-soaked IKEA futon delivered to him last week."

Profeta sees students come through the emergency department of Saint Vincent's Medical Center in Indianapolis too often, he said. He understands the agony parents feel when their child's life is in peril.

"We're the ones who have to tell the parents how these kids die," Profeta said.

So, he talks with groups of young people and writes about extreme drinking and drugs, describing the scene in detail and hoping they will sidestep tragedy.

"I would tell their mom and dad that they were dead, and [explain] how Mom would pull hunks of her hair out until it bled, and Dad would punch the wall, shattering a bone or two," Profeta says to young students.

"Already, Mom and Dad would be blaming [their child's friends] for getting their kid drunk or stoned to the point [vomit] bubbled up in his throat, then plugged his trachea, choking him just as surely as if they had taken their foot and crushed their child's windpipe on their own.

"They will blame you for their child's death until the day you die. Are you ready for that?"

Finally, he describes how the "frat brothers" sit along the wall in the hospital waiting room, and sob.

FILE - Revelers hold up yellow plastic cups during party in New Jersey, Oct. 17, 2015.
FILE - Revelers hold up yellow plastic cups during party in New Jersey, Oct. 17, 2015.

Testing the limits

A person who has had too much to drink can choke or asphyxiate on his or her vomit, even while unconscious, and doesn't respond to pinching or shaking. The person's breath is slow or shallow or absent. The skin is blue, and cold or clammy, according to descriptions by the Gordie Center, a nonprofit at the University of Virginia working to prevent substance abuse.

As new freshmen are unleashed from their parents' protection at home, many test the limits of drugs and alcohol. Rites of passage are repeated each year by the uninitiated.

"So, my friends and I played beer pong tonight. Suffice to say it didn't quite go as expected," posted deutscheblake on the Reddit thread AskDocs. "The guy we all thought could handle liquor the best is now piss drunk sleeping on the floor of our house. He's had about 4 beers and the equivalent to 9 shots. My other friend and I are worried he might have alcohol poisoning. Is there something we should be looking for as a sign that he needs to go to the hospital?"

Alcohol abuse is complicated by other substances haunting America and its campuses, Profeta said.

"We are in the middle of a humongous opiate crisis," he said, "and throw in marijuana. ... So many of these kids are on antidepressants. When you combine those with alcohol, you will die. … They are doing this constantly."

And "they," Profeta said, "are not just frat boys. Young people are partying in basements, friends' houses, in high school."

Binge drinking

Nearly 17 percent of students surveyed said that the last time they partied, they had seven or more drinks, according to the Spring 2017 National College Health Assessment, which polls college students randomly each semester about their health behaviors.

Those amounts are well above the "binge drinking" of four or more standard drinks per occasion for women, and five or more standard drinks per occasion for men, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Within the past 12 months, college students also reported using antidepressants, erectile dysfunction drugs, painkillers, sedatives and stimulants that were not prescribed to them, and 12.5 percent of the students surveyed said they had used one or more of these drugs together.

"They use Viagra," Profeta said, a drug typically prescribed to older men for erectile dysfunction. "They don't think they need it — it's all about the adrenaline rush — about something new, about something different, either escaping or doing something that's frowned on, it's all about walking the edge, walking the tightrope."

And fueled by the same thrill of other extreme experiences, sometimes students shimmy too close to the edge.

Adults should not be afraid to speak up.

"Sometimes things are not that complex," Profeta said. "Sometimes we have to say, 'Stop this. Things are not right.' You don't have to redefine society. We don't have to change what constitutes masculinity and femininity. That is wrong. Just stop. … just stop."

Hungry for facts

And while many younger people seem to screech toward a dangerous independence out of arm's reach of their elders, some are seeking advice similar to Profeta's.

"There should be a drug-ed class like sex-ed, where they teach you how not to overdose or get alcohol poisoning and stuff," wrote RumpyStiltz_56 on the Reddit thread Shower Thoughts.

"There needs to be a class where you learn about a safe-use system for drugs and alcohol," wrote Justanothermolifer, who also said the fact of the matter is that drugs and alcohol will be involved in a lot of students' lives in one way or another.

"I do not think this is a problem with universities or education," Profeta said. "I'm not sure it is a problem with parents. There is a lot of blame to go around everywhere. It's up to us to navigate those threats."

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In the past academic year, U.S. colleges and universities saw a nearly 32 percent increase in Ghanaian students, making Ghana one of the top 25 countries in the world for sending students to the United States. To accommodate the growing interest, the U.S. Embassy in Ghana has opened a new resource center for young people considering an American education. Senanu Tord reports from Kumasi, Ghana.

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US Schools Wrestle with Cellphones in Classrooms

Kelli Anderson takes attendance from the rear of her Language Arts 9 class at Delta High School, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in Delta, Utah. At the rural Utah school, there is a strict policy requiring students to check their phones at the door when entering every class.
Kelli Anderson takes attendance from the rear of her Language Arts 9 class at Delta High School, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in Delta, Utah. At the rural Utah school, there is a strict policy requiring students to check their phones at the door when entering every class.

In California, a high school teacher complains that students watch Netflix on their phones during class. In Maryland, a chemistry teacher says students use gambling apps to place bets during the school day.

Around the country, educators say students routinely send Snapchat messages in class, listen to music and shop online, among countless other examples of how smartphones distract from teaching and learning.

The hold that phones have on adolescents in America today is well-documented, but teachers say parents are often not aware to what extent students use them inside the classroom. And increasingly, educators and experts are speaking with one voice on the question of how to handle it: Ban phones during classes.

"Students used to have an understanding that you aren't supposed to be on your phone in class. Those days are gone," said James Granger, who requires students in his science classes at a Los Angeles-area high school to place their phones in "a cellphone cubby" with numbered slots. "The only solution that works is to physically remove the cellphone from the student."

Most schools already have rules regulating student phone use, but they are enforced sporadically. A growing number of leaders at the state and federal levels have begun endorsing school cellphone bans and suggesting new ways to curb access to the devices.

The latest state intervention came in Utah, where Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, last month urged all school districts and the state Board of Education to remove cellphones from classrooms. He cited studies that show learning improves, distractions are decreased and students are more likely to talk to each other if phones are taken away.

A ninth grader places his cellphone into a phone holder as he enters class Feb. 23, 2024, in Delta, Utah. Each classroom has a cellphone storage unit that looks like an over-the-door shoe bag with three dozen smartphone-sized slots.
A ninth grader places his cellphone into a phone holder as he enters class Feb. 23, 2024, in Delta, Utah. Each classroom has a cellphone storage unit that looks like an over-the-door shoe bag with three dozen smartphone-sized slots.

"We just need a space for six or seven hours a day where kids are not tethered to these devices," Cox told reporters this month. He said his initiative, which is not binding, is part of a legislative push to protect kids in Utah from the harms of social media.

Last year, Florida became the first state to crack down on phones in school. A law that took effect in July requires all Florida public schools to ban student cellphone use during class time and block access to social media on district Wi-Fi. Some districts, including Orange County Public Schools, went further and banned phones the entire school day.

Oklahoma, Vermont and Kansas have also recently introduced what is becoming known as "phone-free schools" legislation.

And two U.S. senators — Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, and Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat — introduced legislation in December that would require a federal study on the effects of cellphone use in schools on students' mental health and academic performance. Theirs is one of several bipartisan alliances calling for stiffer rules for social media companies and greater online safety for kids.

Nationally, 77% of U.S. schools say they prohibit cellphones at school for non-academic use, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But that number is misleading. It does not mean students are following those bans or all those schools are enforcing them.

Just ask teachers.

"Cellphone use is out of control. By that, I mean that I cannot control it, even in my own classroom," said Patrick Truman, who teaches at a Maryland high school that forbids student use of cellphones during class. It is up to each teacher to enforce the policy, so Truman bought a 36-slot caddy for storing student phones. Still, every day, students hide phones in their laps or under books as they play video games and check social media.

Tired of being the phone police, he has come to a reluctant conclusion: "Students who are on their phones are at least quiet. They are not a behavior issue."

A study last year from Common Sense Media found that 97% of kids use their phones during school hours, and that kids say school cellphone policies vary — often from one classroom to another — and aren't always enforced.

For a school cellphone ban to work, educators and experts say the school administration must be the one to enforce it and not leave that task to teachers. The Phone-Free Schools Movement, an advocacy group formed last year by concerned mothers, says policies that allow students to keep phones in their backpacks, as many schools do, are ineffective.

"If the bookbag is on the floor next to them, it's buzzing and distracting, and they have the temptation to want to check it," said Kim Whitman, a co-founder of the group, which advises schools to require phones be turned off and locked away all day.

Some students say such policies take away their autonomy and cut off their main mode of communication with family and friends. Pushback also has come from parents who fear being cut off from their kids if there is a school emergency. Whitman advises schools to make exceptions for students with special educational and medical needs, and to inform parents on expert guidance that phones can be a dangerous distraction for students during an emergency.

Jaden Willoughey, 14, shares the concern about being out of contact with his parents if there's a crisis. But he also sees the upsides of turning in his phone at school.

At Delta High School in rural Utah, where Jaden is a freshman, students are required to check their phones at the door when entering every class. Each of the school's 30 or so classrooms has a cellphone storage unit that looks like an over-the-door shoe bag with three dozen smartphone-sized slots.

"It helps you focus on your work, and it's easier to pay attention in class," Jaden said.

A classmate, Mackenzie Stanworth, 14, said it would be hard to ignore her phone if it was within reach. It's a relief, she said, to "take a break from the screen and the social life on your phone and actually talk to people in person."

It took a few years to tweak the cellphone policy and find a system that worked, said Jared Christensen, the school's vice principal.

"At first it was a battle. But it has been so worth it," he said. "Students are more attentive and engaged during class time. Teachers are able to teach without competing with cellphones. And student learning has increased," he said, citing test scores that are at or above state averages for the first time in years. "I can't definitively say it's because of this policy. But I know it's helping."

The next battle will be against earbuds and smartwatches, he said. Even with phones stashed in pouches, students get caught listening to music on air pods hidden under their hair or hoodies. "We haven't included earbuds in our policy yet. But we're almost there."

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