Virginia ABC conference promotes responsible drinking

Mason partnered with the Virginia Department of Alcohol Beverage Control on March 24 to host a half-day educational conference on college drinking.

“Colleges have high-risk audiences,” said Kathryn Walker, the coordinator for alcohol, tobacco and drug education in WAVES and the primary point person for organizing the conference. “So, it’s important for us to make sure those audiences have the education. We’re at an educational institution where the education is not just in the classroom; it’s outside.”

In addition to working out logistical details, such as booking the location, she conducted an “AnyOne Can Step UP! Bystander Intervention Training” workshop at the conference with peer health educator Meghan Collins. It provided students with strategies and tips for managing crisis situations, from those involving alcohol to sexual assault.

The conference opened with keynote address given by Jessica Cronce, an assistant professor in the University of Washington Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors whose research focuses on addiction, alcohol use and mental disorders.

Participants could then follow one of two tracks. Besides the bystander intervention training and discussion on activism for students, the conference offered events tailored to health professionals seeking up-to-date information concerning alcohol education and treatment, like a motivational interviewing seminar.

Virginia ABC’s College Tour program visited five schools this year, starting with James Madison University and ending with Mason. It has been held annually for the past two decades, expanding from a single day-and-a-half conference attended by people from colleges across the state to a full-blown circuit.

“A lot of different regions wanted specific training that was more specific to their campuses,” said Danielle Luster, education and prevention coordinator for Virginia ABC. “We felt that it was easier if we divided the state into regions so we could focus on the specific needs of each college and community.”

The department funds an external organization called the Virginia College Alcohol Leadership Council, which helps arrange the agenda for each conference. Speakers are typically selected from a list compiled of past contacts and individuals spotted at other conferences.

Established in 1934 as a result of Prohibition, Virginia ABC contains three main divisions: education, which manages College Tour; law enforcement, which administers the state’s alcohol laws; and the stores, which sell alcohol and other merchandise to those of legal drinking age. Revenue generated from sales, taxes, license fees and fines is given to the government and used to fund education, health and transportation programs.

Virginia’s government has a monopoly on the sale of all distilled spirits, such as brandy and rum, making it one of 18 control states in the country.

The education division provides programs aimed at a variety of demographics aside from college students, including elementary, middle and high school students and senior citizens. However, underage drinking is a major concern.

“Statistics have shown that there are issues with underage drinking,” said Carol Mawyer, public relations manager for Virginia ABC. “One of our goals is to educate students on the dangers and the risks involved in underage drinking. We have a responsibility as an agency, as an education agency. We have a responsibility to make students aware of those issues.”

The Bureau of Law Enforcement has recently faced criticism over its arrest of Martese Johnson, a black University of Virginia student who sustained a head injury in the incident and received 10 stitches.

Endowed with full police powers, ABC special agents are tasked with ensuring that restaurants and stores selling alcohol comply with state laws. Although they do not patrol college campuses, they monitor licensed establishments in the area and are permitted to intervene in emergency situations, including those not directly related to alcohol.

In response to the controversy, Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order Mar. 25 that implements more extensive oversight and requires all agents to be retrained in the use of force, cultural diversity and interaction with young people.

In the meantime, Luster maintains that it is important to educate college students about alcohol and safe drinking habits.

“Not all students are really open to hearing about it because they feel that that is a requirement for them to come up to campus and drink excessively,” Luster said. “But I think we are doing a lot of good work on campuses. We have a lot of student leaders that are involved, as well as professionals. I think it’s also important that we don’t just focus on the negative, that we focus on the positives, on people who are making great strides in their communities.”

Photo Credit: Amy Podraza