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Turning students away from alcohol panel is ridiculous

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 17, 2009 7:30 AM

There’s no use trying to hide from it — students are likely the root of downtown violence. But it stands to reason that those same students would be effective in figuring out solutions to Iowa City’s dangerous drinking problems. However, students who want to pitch in to address the problem are being turned away from the newly formed Alcohol Steering Committee.

The alarming increase in assaults and altercations in downtown Iowa City is a clear sign that violence, specifically alcohol-related violence, is unacceptably prevalent. In response, UI and Iowa City officials have partnered to create the Alcohol Steering Committee. Under UI Provost Wallace Loh and Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey, the panel will address issues stemming from alcohol abuse and violence and will work with the UI administration and Iowa City government to find solutions to the problems that drive dangerous drinking.

Their focus remains unclear. Loh said the committee will not focus on prohibition or make another push for a 21-ordinance. Instead, officials say, they’ll focus on issues of safety and protecting the population from alcohol-fueled violence. Bailey, however, said the committee will focus on abusive drinking as the primary issue, treating such matters as property damage and violence as ripple effects. For Bailey, abusive drinking is the root cause.

It is understandable at this point to be unclear on exactly how the group plans to address these problems, let alone take steps to solve them. These issues are just as ingrained in Iowa City culture as is literature and hipsters. Attacking problems such as these require careful, thoughtful deliberation. What is disheartening, however, is the representation in the panel — or lack thereof.

The panel consists of 15 members but includes only two bar owners and one student. The rest are city councilors, community organizers, local business owners, Athletics Director Gary Barta, a police liaison, and emergency-medicine professionals. Lack of student and bar-owner participation is not because of a lack of interest. Many students and bar owners have volunteered, but Loh has said he does not want to the group to grow much beyond its size now. If the committee does expand, he said, it would include only two more students and one additional bar owner. To make up for the lack in student representation, the committee hired a communications consultant who conducted focus groups with students. Loh said the group has received a lot of feedback from those groups.

Still, the current student and bar-owner input is insufficient to gain the student’s perspective or come up with real solutions. Students and bar owners may not have the same prestige and influence as community organizers and leaders, but their experience is central to the matter. Students face these issues firsthand.

The committee will need to approach alcohol-driven violence from different angles, and that will most likely involve finding dry alternatives to the bar scene for students. To find alternatives that will attract enough students, the committee will need to include more than just a focus group and the perspective of one or two students. The committee will need the input of a variety of students and bar owners. If the group does not want to grow too big, as Loh contends, then it should at the very least have joint sessions with UISG or out student groups. An occasional collaboration among students, the committee, and Iowa City government should provide enough perspective without having an unmanageable group.

Regardless of the committee’s makeup, it should approach the issue of alcohol-related violence through numerous angles. The single-dimension, reactionary approach by police to ticket underage drinkers and arrest violent perpetrators has done little, if anything, to stem abusive drinking or the wave of violence gripping Iowa City. PAULA tickets have proven ineffective — students still pack downtown bars every weekend. All a PAULA does, aside from placing a financial burden on a students who are already burdened by tuition, is to cast them out from the relative safety of a bar into the darkness of the Iowa City night, where a majority of the attacks have taken place.


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