“It’s not college, it’s Coastal.”
For years, many students at Coastal Carolina University have adopted the unofficial catchphrase to describe their experience at the school that’s 11 miles from Myrtle Beach.
Most recently, a study released Tuesday found that Coastal has the highest number of liquor law violations per capita of any large four-year college and ranks second in the country in drug violations.
It’s a blow to a university that has been trying to combat its image as a party school since visits from “I’m Shmacked,” a company that travels to colleges and films off-campus footage of students drinking excessively and dancing provocatively.
But the school’s high number of reported infractions doesn’t mean Coastal students have worse problems with alcohol or drugs than other schools, administrators at the Conway college say. The school is just vigilant about making sure students aren’t abusing booze and drugs.
“There is a commitment on our campus to be very transparent,” said Travis Overton, Coastal’s dean of students and vice president of students’ rights and responsibilities. “As an institution, we are committed in consistent enforcement of our policy. If our staff is made aware of an incident, our staff documents it.”
Students complain Coastal officials are too harsh.
“Because the cops would rather bust a freshman with beer in his backpack than worry about bigger issues,” student Jorge Hidalgo tweeted in reaction to an initial report about Coastal’s high alcohol and drug violation rankings.
Coastal is not the only South Carolina college to hold a reputation as a party school.
University of South Carolina ranked No. 17 on the Princeton Review’s national list of party schools in 2012. USC has fought hard against that moniker and didn’t make last year’s list. However, the College of Charleston did, coming in at No. 15.
Coastal knows it has issues.
Overton, the Coastal administrator, said he realizes that the state-run school has a reputation for attracting students who like to party. Coastal draws the largest percentage of students from out of state, who account for nearly half of the campus population.
“There are some students that take advantage of that and try to capitalize on that,” Overton said. “It creates challenges for us and our environment.”
The study conducted by ProjectKnow.com, an online resource for those dealing with addiction, found that Coastal had 1,070 reported liquor law violations per 10,000 students in 2015, well ahead of second-ranked Marquette University with 932. The Conway college’s 330 reported drug violations were topped only by University of California-Santa Cruz, which had 589.
That’s well above the three other South Carolina colleges with higher enrollments than Coastal — USC, Clemson University and College of Charleston. Coastal has four times as many alcohol violations and three times as many drug violations as the next-highest Palmetto State university, according to the ProjectKnow.com report.
Numbers in the study, compiled from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education Campus Safety and Security crime data, reflect arrests and disciplinary actions involving students that occurred both on and off campus in 2015, the latest data available.
Coastal’s reputation for having a party atmosphere made headlines in 2014 when “I’m Shmacked” held a party for the university’s students at the House of Blues near North Myrtle Beach.
The event, held for students age 18 and older, led to 35 arrests — mostly for underage drinking, disorderly conduct, urinating in public and altering ID cards.
More recently, Coastal drew nationwide attention in March when it suspended its cheerleading squad over anonymous allegations of prostitution, drug use and cheating. A campus police investigation was formally closed last week without any significant developments.
Working it out
Other South Carolina colleges have tried different programs to reduce substance abuse that can create a party-school reputation.
At USC, spokesman Jeff Stensland said the university has invested in drug and alcohol education in recent years. Those efforts may have paid off, according to the results from the ProjectKnow report.
USC had the fewest violations of the state’s four largest college with 117 for alcohol incidents and 75 drug incidents two years ago.
“We believe that personal accountability must be a hallmark of any strategy to combat negative behaviors,” Stensland said. “We’ve taken an aggressive, multi-faceted approach to disciplining organizations and individuals that exhibit poor behavior.”
College of Charleston also is looking for new ways to get itself removed from the party school list.
The state’s third-largest college has doubled down on programs in place, including stationing school public safety officers in campus buildings overnight to ensure students aren’t under the influence, the college’s Executive Vice President for Student Affairs Alicia Caudill said.
Beginning in the fall, the college will offer several weeks of welcome programs on the weekends to encourage non-alcohol based activities for students.
“Each year we’re adding things and looking at different strategies,” she said.
While Coastal officials stopped short of saying they have a zero-tolerance policy for drug and alcohol use, many students and parents — in response to an initial report about the school’s ranking in The Post and Courier — said that was the case.
“(Resident assistants) and Public Safety will jump at any waking moment to bust people for something,” Coastal student Trevor Carver posted on Twitter in reaction the article. “The fines they collect could (probably) make tuition free.”
“When will @CCUChanticleers understand that they make THEMSELVES look bad, not the students,” student Brooke Butler said in a tweet.
Elizabeth Carter, Coastal’s associate director for alcohol and other drug prevention and services, said the ProjectKnow report might give the wrong impression of the 10,500-student school.
“I think the intention of the report was probably good in trying to say that colleges need to take this issue seriously,” she said. “But I think that in highlighting certain schools, they might have, in some people’s minds, (defined them as) party schools instead of saying these schools are being proactive.”
Overton also said the way incidents are reported could have skewed the number. For example, if 10 students are in a room during a suspected underage alcohol bust, all 10 are referred for disciplinary action even if only three students have violated the law.
“There are multiple factors that could play a role,” he said.
Fighting the image
Even before the 2014 visit from “I’m Shmacked” and the fallout it created, Coastal had programs in place to help curb alcohol and drug abuse for students.
For example, like the USC program, first-year students are required to take an alcohol education online course before they reach campus. Once at college, students discuss the effects of the substances in the first-year experience class for freshmen.
Coastal also is engaged in a “social-norming” campaign, where it aims to debunk the myths of the college experience.
“We highlight all of the positive things students are doing,” Carter said. “When we look at any reporting numbers, it’s only capturing a small percentage of our entire student body. (The campaign) reinforces a positive, normative environment.”
Carter added that any negative attention that the ProjectKnow report might bring to Coastal will be balanced with more discussions about substance-abuse prevention.
“If it gets people talking about the issue, I’m always OK with it,” she said. “Sweeping it under the rug is what gets colleges and universities in trouble with having their students not succeed and having lots of negative consequences.”