After deaths, university opens with sober mission

Three drug and alcohol-related deaths make impact

Between December and May, three undergraduates at Southern Methodist University’s died of drug or alcohol overdoses.

That toll would stand out at any college, but it’s especially conspicuous at SMU, a close-knit campus of 11,000 students that has long tried to shake its party-school reputation.

So with dormitories and fraternity houses full again and classes under way, campus leaders are trying new approaches and beefing up past efforts to curb drug and alcohol abuse.

Some faculty, parents and students have criticized SMU’s administration for doing too little, too late last year to address substance abuse or investigate the student deaths. A few wonder whether some endeavors, like a task force created by the administration after the fatalities, are more about public relations than the hard work of changing the campus culture.

“The university will say that it’s doing a lot; it’s putting in place a lot of new programs. But in my estimation, they are things that have been created to look good. It’s window-dressing,” said George Henson, a Spanish lecturer and one of the most vocal critics.

Others, including campus administrators, say SMU takes the problem seriously and continues to do all it reasonably can.

Emphasis on “reasonably.” Because experts say that if SMU’s going to make lasting changes, it can’t make them alone, especially when drug and alcohol problems seep beyond campus borders.

“All of us must do more, and more often, to make an impact,” SMU President Gerald Turner said in a written statement announcing the task force. It requires a partnership with the campus, parents, students, police and community leaders, he said.

In December, just before finals, Jake Stiles, a 20-year-old sophomore from Naperville, Ill. , was found dead in his room at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house. The cause: a mixture of cocaine, alcohol and a prescription painkiller called fentanyl.

Then in early May, Jordan Crist was found unconscious in a dorm room. Two hours later the 19-year-old freshman from Hinsdale, Ill., was dead, his blood alcohol level five times the legal limit.

Just two weeks later, Meaghan Bosch, a 21-year-old senior from McKinney, disappeared. A few days later, construction workers found her body in a portable toilet near Waco. She had overdosed on cocaine, methamphetamine and the painkiller oxycodone.

SMU held memorial services and offered grief counselors. But some professors and students suggest more could have been done to confront the problem of substance abuse.

“Clearly when you have more than one (death), we should have been having some discussion, and I don’t recollect that that occurred,” said Rick Halperin, who directs SMU’s human rights education program.

SMU administrators say they’ve responded on multiple fronts and keep doing so.

In June, Turner announced a task force on substance abuse prevention that includes professors, administrators, students and a parent. The group will evaluate whether SMU’s current programs need changes or additions. It also will examine broader factors that can affect students’ choices about drinking and drugs, like class schedules that make it easy to start partying early on Friday, and habits students develop before they ever set foot on campus.

“This is a great opportunity to really reinvent what we’re doing, if we think that’s what we need to do,” said Dee Siscoe, dean of student life and co-chair of the task force.