Detox visits double at UW-Madison

The sharp rise in this statistic has caused the University to request Big Ten collaboration.

Over the past four years, Sue Riseling has watched a disturbing trend surface on the University of Wisconsin campus: The number of students drinking themselves to incapacitation has nearly doubled.

But as alarming as the numbers are, Riseling is uncertain how serious the problem is, because no other campus can offer comparable statistics.

That uncertainty brought Riseling, the University of Wisconsin’s chief of police, to ask the rest of Big Ten police chiefs to compile statistics during 2008 for activity that Madison has monitored for over a decade.

Riseling defined incapacitation as the number of students who require trips to detoxification centers or the emergency room for overconsumption of alcohol; it’s essentially a judgment call for police.

The number of students the University of Wisconsin police department encounters annually has risen from 52 during the 2003-2004 academic school year to 112 last year.

Riseling said those numbers measure on-campus occurrences during fall and spring semesters, but don’t include students who have been reported more than once or visitors to campus.

“The other Big Ten schools were really stunned by this, I think,” she said.

In other cases around the Big Ten, it hasn’t always been clear who should be collecting this data – emergency rooms, police departments or the universities.

Riseling said she hopes to compare data at a meeting between police chiefs in December. She said she plans to collaborate with other universities to find a solution if other schools have similar situations.

“I’m trying to find a benchmark to see if I’m leading the pack, in the middle or behind,” she said.

University police Deputy Chief Steve Johnson said the department keeps the information requested, but has never compiled it like the University of Wisconsin. He said data on minor consumption has been recorded since November, and the department just began to record the data that Riseling requested in February.

He said he is unsure how complete of a picture information from just the police department will be.

“Enforcement is a very minor snapshot of consumption on campus,” he said.

David Golden, director of public health and communication at Boynton Health Service, said emergency rooms are required to track the information, but may do not note whether their patients are University students. Fairview Health Services could not provide information on the subject.

Golden said Boynton Health Service does monitor student drinking levels through surveys and has not seen a significant increase.

Riseling said her department has also tracked University of Wisconsin students picked up with a blood alcohol content level above .16, in addition to those considered incapacitated. During the 2003-2004 school year, 92 such cases were reported, while in 2006-2007 there were 132 cases.

Apples to oranges comparison

Riseling said the University may provide the best comparison to Madison because it has similar systems for dealing with incapacitated students. Also, other Big Ten universities don’t have detox centers.

However, Golden said the two universities might be difficult to relate because Minnesota’s student population is more widespread and cases may be reported in different frequencies.

Riseling said students’ level of incapacitation in Madison is decided by their motor functions and cognitive abilities. This may open the door for differences in opinion, but she said it’s generally easy to discern which students should be included in the statistics.

“These are students who don’t know what day it is or where they are,” she said. “They don’t even know who the president is.”