The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 31, 2007

Binge drinking concerns underlined

Death puts a fatal face on problem

By Robb Murray

MANKATO — Talk to Amanda Jax’s friends. Read the good-byes on her Facebook site. Look at the light in the eyes of young woman with a lifetime of fun ahead of her.

Chances are you’ll come away with picture of a someone whose mere presence could lift the mood of a room.

“She was really the kind of person that could bring you up anytime you saw her,” said Megan Besser, who worked with Jax at The Great Wall restaurant near the Minnesota State University campus. “I just had a customer that asked about her not knowing that she’d passed away.”

Now, of course, the community is getting to know Jax in the most unfortunate of ways. Jax, who had spent an evening drinking and celebrating her 21st birthday, passed out and never woke up. Police are continuing to investigate but say, “It’s very apparent alcohol played a major factor in the death.”

Jax had been convicted twice of alcohol-related offenses, once in Hennepin County in 2005, and once in McLeod County in 2006.

Her friends said she was excited about beginning the nursing program at MSU in January. She’d attended MSU for several years, but was taking this semester off.

Her story has reawakened the debate on binge drinking, an issue MSU’s Health Services has been addressing for years.

Two years ago, the department received an $850,000 grant to conduct a social norming campaign and develop alternative programming, both of which aim to eliminate underage and binge drinking.

So far, both have seen positive results.

Social norming operates on the theory that most people overestimate how much their peers drink. When the realities of college drinking are advertised, students who do drink, the theory goes, will tend to gravitate toward the majority of students who don’t. They’ve used posters, rest room billboards, newspaper ads and other media to get this message out.

Wendy Schuh, MSU’s alcohol and drug education coordinator, said that when students were surveyed in the initial phase of the three-year grant, less than 1 percent said they drink daily. But when asked how much their peers drank, those same students said 46.8 percent of students drink daily.

That survey was redone recently and the results, after one year of the social norming campaign, Schuh said, were much different. Only 34 percent of students now said they believed most students drink daily.

They haven’t measured behavior yet, but they plan to.

Alternative programming is the other part of that grant. The goal here is to give students alcohol-free activity options on weekend evenings.

Every weekend one such night has been sponsored by a department on campus — such as athletics, which sponsored Skate With the Mavericks night. The program is called “Mavericks After Dark,” and Schuh said some have been very successful.

“Sometimes there’s a few hundred, sometimes there’s 50,” she said.

Police said the manner of Jax’s death is disturbing.

“It was a very tragic death. Something we feared would occur has occurred,” said Jerry Huettl, director of the Mankato Department of Public Safety. “We’ve believed for a long time it wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ something like this would happen, but a matter of ‘when’.”

Binge drinking has been an acknowledged problem among college-aged drinkers for years. But in the last decade or so, extreme drunkenness has been more common.

A few well-publicized deaths several years ago put birthday rituals such as the “power hour” — what used to be the one hour of legal drinking time the day a person turned 21 — became the subject of lawmaker scrutiny. Since then a state law was passed prohibiting anyone from consuming alcohol before 8 a.m. on the day of their 21st birthday.

“Maverick Health,” a newsletter published by MSU, has often contained messages about the dangers of binge drinking. One issue in particular, published in 2005, advised students to not pressure friends to binge on their 21st birthdays.

Friends, however, chose to remember what everyone seems to remember about Jax: her contagious smile and the joy they say she brought to everyone.

Dan Regnier said he met her on the first day of the freshman year. She’s been one of his best friends ever since.

“She was an amazing person. A person everyone loved,” Regnier said. “I remember her being extremely smart. She was always dedicated to what she was doing.”

Said Besser, “She definitely knew how to bring energy to any situation ... She would have been a really good nurse, that’s for sure ... She really knew how to work with people, how to start conversations, and she could comfort them in any way.”

Added Regnier, “She was the kind of person you could not hate.”

Jax’s funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Friday in St. Bonifacius. MSU has not yet planned a memorial service on campus.