Saturday night in Witte Hall means one word for hundreds of the students who reside there: Party.

On almost every floor, a thudding bass line pours out of several rooms as the doors open and quickly slam shut for the stream of people laughing their way in and out.

As the clock ticks past midnight and official quiet hours begin, a pair of students with clipboards set out to walk the halls, one floor after another.

Tomorrow morning some students will wake up and remember, with a mix of emotions, getting “written up” by those two housefellows. For most of them, a first offense means a short meeting with their own house fellow to discuss the effect their actions have on the community.

Over the course of the 2007-08 academic year, 1,451 students met this fate, or one in every five students living in the residence halls.

About 96 percent of those whose underage drinking was written up avoided any penalty greater than meeting with housefellows or other University Housing staff.

But for other dorm residents who were caught for the first time, the sting of getting caught meant uniformed police officers wrote out a ticket, costing $249. And that penalty stuck around with the note on their driving records for employers to see.

The number of those students was much smaller, as only 298, or about 4 percent of residents, received underage drinking citations in the University of Wisconsin Residence Halls in 2008.

The crime

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the leading killer of college-aged people is injury-accidents. The leading cause of those accidents is alcohol.

Associate Dean of Students Kevin Helmkamp said underage drinking has been a chronic challenge for university officials.

“There’s a lot of ways [alcohol] can affect students. The negative ways are well-documented — lost sleep, inability to study and the inability to be at your best for a fairly long time after drinking are all some of those,” Helmkamp said.

According to UW Police Department Lt. Eric Holen, students face a legion of harmful potential consequences of alcohol use.

He cited both physiological risks along with secondary risks: becoming a victim of another crime, falling off a balcony or getting hit by a car are a few he listed off.

“It’s a serious issue. We are fortunate,” Holen said. “We’ve had some serious, life-changing injuries on campus, but the fact is that we haven’t lost anyone on campus. … That’s what it comes down to for me.”

Larry Davis, associate residence life director for UW Housing, called alcohol the No. 1 problem in the residence halls.

“Even some of the mental health issues, some of the community disruption in the halls is alcohol-related, and much of the vandalism is alcohol-related,” Davis added.

He said students should have the right and ability to sleep and study in their rooms in the dorms, but alcohol consumption can damage that ability.

Helmkamp said alcohol use among residents of UW Housing, of whom Davis estimated 92 to 93 percent are underage, is rooted in social adjustment during the transition to college.

“The social interaction is important for finding a place where you feel comfortable,” Helmkamp said. “And we certainly have students who use alcohol as a bridge to that. There is a reason so many students choose to drink.”

He went on to say alcohol use is a less serious concern when not directly tied to safety issues and community disruption.

“I would like to see all of our students be moderate in their decisions around alcohol, but when not, I am more comfortable with the student who returns and doesn’t disrupt the community,” Helmcamp said.

The punishment

After two academic years and one summer as a house fellow, UW graduate Erin Aldrich found the vast majority of underage alcohol consumption in the dorms went undocumented, but was frustrated by the limited consequences for students who were written up.

“We’re basically saying it’s OK to break the law, because we have all these documentations of underage drinking, and yet none of them ever get tickets, none of them are really reprimanded outside of talking to their house fellow, and then we’re basically leaving it to 20- to 22-year-olds to enforce some much greater law,” Aldrich said.

Former housefellow Emilie Siverling said the conversations residents had with their housefellows concerned the disruption to the community that drinking could cause.

According to Davis, this is in line with UW Housing’s approach to drinking violations, which is focused on community effects and education.

“I think because college students are adults and they make the choice to drink, we would rather engage with them about the choices they choose to make,” Davis said.

Aldrich said in her experience, this approach served as a weak deterrent to students who had been caught drinking and causing a disturbance.

“They would leave the conversation telling me it wasn’t going to change their behavior,” Aldrich said. “You would see the people who were getting caught keep getting caught.”

She added students almost never were removed from UW Housing for alcohol violations unless other serious problems occurred.

Siverling, too, said she saw a range of reactions after meeting with residents about alcohol problems.

“Some people take it way too seriously, and they’re the ones who don’t need to worry about it too much,” Siverling said. “Some people don’t take it seriously enough, and they’re the ones who usually really need to worry about their drinking.”

Former housefellow Kevin Krenz said enforcement of alcohol policy in the residence halls also depended on the house fellows on duty.

“There are house fellows out there who don’t want to do anything, whether that’s out of laziness or not caring if freshmen drink sometimes,” he said.

Krenz added he found police action to have a much stronger impact on residents than any action house fellows might take.

The solution?

UW Housing will re-examine its alcohol policy this summer, part of the pattern for revamping it about every two years, according to Davis.

Holen said because they could never write up every single violation of the law, UWPD’s approach to issuing underage drinking citations was aimed particularly at increasing safety, rather than solely enforcing the law.

“We’re not issuing the citations just because we can, because if we did, those numbers would be much higher,” Holen said. “What we do is look at those behaviors that are serious problems.”

Aldrich said she thought UW Housing and UWPD could play a more significant part in changing what many regard as a widespread drinking culture at the university.

“I think that if we really wanted to stop underage drinking, there’s a really easy way to do it, and it would be to have police officers go through the dorms more frequently, ” she said. “It would just be so great if we didn’t make people have to go through all the issues that drinking causes just to learn from it.”

In the past 10 years, alcohol policy in the dorms has undergone small changes, including the addition of penalizing students for empty alcohol containers they possess in 1989.

Two years ago, policy shifted to require automatic dismissal for residents found with kegs in their rooms.

Davis said a more drastic change like increased citations from the police would not be well received.

“I think some of our students would say they were being held more accountable than others if we called the police for every violation. … I think our students would not appreciate it at all,” Davis said.

He added this summer’s discussion would likely continue a trend of greater emphasis on suppliers of alcohol or those hosting parties in the residence halls.