LARAMIE, Wyo. — Laramie's binge-drinking culture isn't unique among college towns, and it's a problem people have been working on for a long time, according to local experts.
Tracy Young, a community prevention professional with the Coalition to Prevent Substance Abuse, said the Laramie community is generally proactive when it comes to addressing substance abuse issues. But binge drinking is a huge issue that will take the community's support for a long period of time to fight, she said.
"People need to realize how big the task is," Young said.
The coalition, also known as COPSA, is made up of representatives from almost 20 different organizations, law enforcement agencies and demographic groups in Laramie. The group meets monthly and has been discussing how to address binge drinking specifically for the last few months.
"We're very much aware of this issue," Young tells the Laramie Boomerang (http://bit.ly/16qlauo).
Laramie Police Chief Dale Stalder recently discussed his concerns regarding a seeming increase in the number and severity of alcohol-related incidents to which the department has been responding.
Lena Newlin coordinates the University of Wyoming's AWARE program, which stands for Alcohol Wellness Alternatives, Research and Education. She agreed that Laramie's binge-drinking culture doesn't make the city unique.
"At UW, we've been working on this issue for a very long time. It's an issue that I don't expect is going to go away anytime soon," Newlin said. "It's really a cultural issue. We've been working for a long time to try to change that culture through a lot of different efforts."
Young said the coalition's strategic plan to curb binge drinking in Laramie has several components, starting with enhanced law enforcement. That means a concerted effort between the Albany County Sheriff's Office, Laramie Police Department and UW Police Department to work together when on patrol.
"It's taking everything they're doing and doing it better and more consistently, and tracking what they're doing and trying to keep our fingers on it so we know what they're doing," Young said.
For example, breaking up a big party might require the efforts of several officers for a period of several hours. The LPD may need assistance from the Sheriff's Office or UWPD to conduct party patrols if its own officers are stretched thin.
"It's pulling in other departments and working together," Young said.
The coalition is also conducting focus groups involving college-aged Laramie residents to see what kinds of social activities might be an alternative to the bar scene. Young said they're finding that students who have planned activities the next day, such as a ski trip or a 5K run, will tend to not drink the night before.
Students also enjoy organized activities that are easy to find information about.
"Some of the challenges are just connecting college students with things out in the community that aren't alcohol-centered," she said.
The final piece of the coalition's strategy will be a media campaign that targets specific groups with focused messages.
Young said the process of changing the way a community feels about drinking is a slow one.
"It's about changing the entire environment and providing alternatives, and hopefully we'll get there," she said.
The Laramie community is welcome to participate in the coalition's efforts, she said.
"There's a lot that can be done, but we need to the community to rally around this issue," she said.
Newlin said the AWARE program does help students drink less frequently and have fewer drinks. Students who receive any type of alcohol-related citation on campus or in the community are referred to the program. Usually, their fine will be reduced in exchange for their participation.
The program involves an average of about five hours of one-on-one counseling, group meetings and online education aimed at helping students reduce harm and make informed decisions about substance use.
"Overall, students that go through the aware program tend to drink less frequently and have fewer drinks," Newlin said.
"Their frequency and amount is decreased," she added.
This year, the number of referrals to the program is down. The program averages about 300 referrals during an average academic year. Last year at this time, there had been 282 referrals. As of a couple weeks ago, there were 243.
"We've been working on this a long time. It's an issue of changing the culture," Newlin said.