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Stony Brook students learn to prevent alcohol deaths

When Stony Brook University junior Samsad Pavel found a friend nearly passed out in a dorm room after a party, he wasn't sure what - or how much - the boy had drunk. But he was certain what to do: Call 911.

"I realized it was a serious situation, that it could be a life-death situation," said Pavel, 21.

Several hours and a trip to the emergency room later, the friend was sober and safe, one of the first real-life examples of a new program called Red Watch Band that teaches students how to step in and prevent the consequences of binge drinking.

Red Watch Band was inspired by the death last year of Matthew Sunshine, a freshman at Northwestern University and the son of a Stony Brook professor. Sunshine died from alcohol poisoning after classmates took him to his room to sleep it off.

"There were students who witnessed what happened and who would have helped him if they had known what to do," said Sunshine's mother, Dr. Suzanne Fields, a professor of medicine at Stony Brook. "They told us they didn't know how much trouble he was in."

Students are trained in CPR, given information about alcohol poisoning and participate in role-playing exercises designed to prepare them for when they call for help.

Experts say the medical and behavioral training and the focus on preventing harm, rather than preaching abstinence, is unique on college campuses.

"Most of the college drinking programs I'm familiar with are attempting to target the abuse of alcohol rather than some very specific outcome," said George Dowdall, a sociology professor at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and author of several books on college drinking.

Stony Brook officials hope the program will result in less binge drinking among students. "It really doesn't help to only tell young people they shouldn't drink," said president Shirley Strum Kenny. "This is a very different thing. It's 'Here's how to keep your friend from dying.' Optimally, it will have the effect of helping students understand what a toxic level of drink is."

So far, 84 students, including Pavel, have been trained and received red watch bands. Without the training, the night he found his friend so drunk might have ended differently.

"I would have been prone to believing it was OK to just let him sleep it off," Pavel said.

Jenny Hwang, associate dean and director for prevention and outreach, said the program is aimed at correcting such misinformation, from the idea that sleeping it off is the antidote to a night of hard drinking to the fear that the college will punish anyone who ends up in the emergency room because of alcohol. It is also designed to provide students with skills that address the barriers to calling 911.

"One thing in doing prevention work with college students is we have to stay pragmatic," Hwang said. "What are the choice points they find themselves at and what can we do to tip them in the right direction in the most realistic way?"

The training includes role-playing exercises in which the students act out scenarios they may face: What if the drunken person becomes violent or tries to grab the phone? What if you're not sure of your exact location when you call 911? What if others are pressuring you not to call 911, saying it would ruin the party or get people into trouble?

"I think it surprises people at how difficult it is to make the call and what it really would be like to do it," said Marie Rivera, 22, a Stony Brook senior and program member. "Most people don't ever imagine having to do this."

The last exercise is a scene based loosely on what happened to Matthew Sunshine. "It's the toughest and heaviest one and we bring in the real story when we're done," said Christine Jerusik, a senior psychology major and Red Watch Band member who trains other students. "The bottom line is that no one wants to be at that party where someone dies."

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