ANNAPOLIS, Md. – The U.S. Naval Academy is taking a new approach to educate students about the effects of alcohol: a 21st birthday dinner with enough booze to put a midshipmen over the legal limit.
Capt. Margaret Klein, commandant of midshipmen, told the academy's Board of Visitors on Monday that the new program appears to be having its desired effect: Midshipmen learn it doesn't take many drinks before they reach a 0.08 blood-alcohol content, the legal standard for drunken driving in Maryland.
"The resounding feedback I've had is that most midshipmen had no idea how few drinks it takes to get them to that .08 limit," Klein said.
Klein told the board that the idea originated over the past summer, when academy leadership discussed ways to emphasize the importance of responsible drinking. While thinking of ways to address problems with binge drinking, Klein said she recalled having to deal with a midshipman about a year ago who drank too much celebrating his 21st birthday.
Under the new academy program, Klein sends out letters to midshipmen in the month of their 21st birthdays. "In addition to asking them to consider their new responsibility, we also invite them to a dinner," Klein said.
The meal is served near the academy's dining area, King Hall, and alcohol is provided.
"In addition to serving alcohol, we offer Breathalyzers to the midshipmen — we try to get them above that 0.08 limit — if they so desire," Klein told the board.
"If they don't desire to drink anything we don't make them drink anything," Klein added.
After the meal and breath test, the academy brings in Defense Department police to recount their experiences with young people and alcohol.
"We've done this now for three months," Klein said. "It's been very successful."
Klein described comments from midshipmen who participated in October birthday dinners as "hugely positive, hugely educational."
"And we hope to see results over the coming year," she said.
Midshipmen who are 21 are only supposed to have one drink each hour — and not more than three drinks in a night. They're never supposed to be over the 0.08 blood-alcohol content.
The academy has been working to crack down on alcohol abuse. The school suffered some bad publicity after a group of midshipmen on a Caribbean cruise prompted an academy investigation after heavy drinking during a spring break trip earlier this year. Two high-profile sexual misconduct cases last also involved heavy drinking.
Earlier this year, a senior midshipman who was the service academy's drug and alcohol education student sent a memo to all of the academy's students, saying midshipmen were still breaking rules against binge drinking, despite the academy's efforts to crack down.
In 2002, Midshipman John Paul Ruggiero, 20, fell 53 feet from a dormitory window at the academy and died following a night of off-campus drinking. A Navy investigation determined Ruggiero had a blood-alcohol content of 0.11 percent when he died and ruled the death accidental.