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Rite of Passage? Wrong

It happens every spring on college campuses across the country: When exams end, celebrations begin. That alcohol is usually a major component of these end-of-year parties (not to mention parties throughout the year) isn't surprising.

But just because drinking is widely considered part of the "college experience" doesn't mean underage students are entitled to drink. Drinking is not a harmless rite of passage. Studies, as well as the sometimes tragic effects of drinking, refute that notion. Alcohol plays a part in 95 percent of violent crime on campus. Ninety percent of all reported campus rapes, for example, occur when the assailant or victim has been drinking.

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Recently, at the University of Colorado in Boulder, hundreds of students broke windows, burned couches and trash, and threw rocks at police. Officers responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. Twenty-nine people were injured, 31 were arrested, and thousand of dollars in damage was done. Why? The students said they were fighting for the right to drink before they turn 21 and were frustrated by a university and community crackdown on their drinking.

That reasoning is self-destructive. As one Boulder resident said, "The only thing [the students'] actions proved is that [they're] not ready for the responsibility of being an adult."

To their credit, the University of Colorado and a number of other schools have beefed up their policies on alcohol. As part of a pilot program, for example, five US colleges will begin banning alcohol in their fraternities. At Boulder, beer is no longer sold at football games. In past seasons, the school averaged more than two violent disturbances a game. The Boulder police, meanwhile, have adopted a zero-tolerance policy on underage drinking. Yet if students believe police and school are being too harsh - and many clearly do - then they should complain verbally, not with rocks and bottles.

The most urgent need now, at the University of Colorado and other schools, is to help students see alcohol as debilitating, not liberating. That effort should be helped by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to the University of Colorado and five other universities. The goal of the five-year project is to create change within the campus culture. The riots underscore how crucial such a change is.

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