By Kevin Duggan

Perception is not reality when it comes to student alcohol use in Fort Collins.

Life at Colorado State University is not a party that runs 24/7, and dangerous behavior, such as drunken driving or binge drinking, is not the norm.

That’s the message local organizations dedicated to addressing drug and alcohol issues want to get out to the community at large and young people in particular.

Statistics back up their point. Getting people to believe what the numbers show is another matter, said Scoot Crandall, executive director of TEAM Fort Collins and a member of CSU’s Alcohol Task Force, which last week presented 43 recommendations for stemming the culture of alcohol on campus.

People attribute behaviors to others based on their own experiences, such as what they hear from the media, he said. But often, they are mistaken, especially when it comes to groups with which they have little or no personal contact.

“The perception of what other people are doing is far different than what they are actually doing,” he said. “There is a notion out there that if you go to CSU, you drink to excess and you riot. That’s not true. The statistics at CSU and reality don’t bear that out.”

A survey of students living in CSU residence halls in 2003 found 39 percent don’t drink at all, up from 33 percent in 2002. The survey also found 81 percent of dorm residents drink once or less a week.

The amount of alcohol CSU students consume also is misunderstood, even by fellow students, according a 2004 survey by Associated Students of CSU.

When asked the number of alcoholic drinks an average student has in a week, 0.74 percent of respondents said zero: 44.16 percent answered four to six; and 23.4 percent said seven to nine.

When asked how many drinks they consume in a week, 33.17 percent of respondents said zero: 14.93 percent said four to six; and 7.8 percent said seven to nine.

Crandall said the danger behind the misconceptions is that students — particularly those who are in the vulnerable stage of transitioning from high school to college — might believe heavy drinking is the norm in college.

Because people tend to want to conform to the behavior of groups to which they aspire, students with skewed views on drinking might drink excessively, perpetuating the behavior and the myth, he said.

“I think there is a whole lot more healthy living in this community than we realize,” Crandall said. “The sad and dangerous slope we’ve gotten on is the misperception of alcohol issues here.”

The community as a whole has misperceptions about drinking at CSU, said Kalie Bozich, a freshman journalism student from Arvada.

“There are a lot of people who don’t drink at all,” she said. “And most of those who do drink are able to keep it under control.”

The best way to combat the misperceptions and change behaviors is through education, said Pam McCracken, director of the Center for Drug and Alcohol Education at CSU.

Reality, or the “social norm,” needs to be reflected to students so they will know how to fit in, she said. Positive norms will produce positive behaviors.

Programs aimed at “social norming” have proved to be effective in many areas, McCracken said, including reducing binge drinking on other college campuses.

A new program at CSU called 86 Yourself promotes the use of designated drivers. The name is based on a survey that found 86 percent of students use designated drivers when they go to parties or out socializing.

Getting the message out with the aim of increasing that number will include classroom discussions and a marketing campaign. In time, the “86” message will be familiar to students and can be used to promote other safe behaviors, McCracken said.

Students have responded to the alcohol-related events that have scarred CSU this school year, including riots and the deaths of two students, by looking out for one another and being more sensitive about their own behaviors, she said.

There are serious issues around drinking at CSU and in Fort Collins, McCracken said, particularly underage use and an increase in binge drinking. But the problems might not be as widespread as people believe.

“You can’t sweep it under the carpet,” she said. “But I also think we’re a community that takes this particular issue and works hard to increase awareness of it and education around it and promote the healthy behaviors around it.”

An obstacle to overcome in spreading the reality message is the tendency of students to disbelieve survey results that do not reflect their personal perceptions, Crandall said. They believe fellow students lie on surveys.

To answer the skepticism, surveys sometimes ask if respondents took the questionnaire seriously. Most do, he said.

In a recent survey of Fort Collins High School students on substance abuse, 90 percent said they answered truthfully.

But only 12 percent said they thought others took the survey seriously, Crandall said.

Last year’s events involving alcohol at CSU have given Fort Collins a national reputation as a hard-drinking “brew” town, Crandall said.

That’s not accurate, and it’s an image the community should work on changing, he said.

“I think it’s critically important that they address the alcohol culture,” he said. “But I also think it’s critically important that we address the fact that here we see a substantial number of people who are engaging in healthy behavior. And that really is the norm.”

Originally published Feb. 8, 2005