Matthew Sunshine’s death inspires new alcohol safety program at Stony Brook

Andrew Scoggin

For the mother of former Northwestern student Matthew Sunshine, her son’s death due to alcohol poisoning last June inspired a movement that may have already saved lives.

Shortly after Sunshine’s death, his mother, Dr. Suzanne Fields, received a letter from New York-based Stony Brook University President Shirley Strum Kenny, telling her “she would do what she could to help.”

Fields, a geriatric physician at Stony Brook, took advantage of this opportunity, and Kenny set the wheels in motion to start the Red Watch Band program, an alcohol safety and awareness group trained to act in alcohol-related emergencies.

“I thought his death was preventable,” Fields said. “She took my request to heart.”

Red Watch Band

The Red Watch Band program launched March 15 at Stony Brook’s campus on Long Island, said Dr. Jenny Hwang, director of the Center for Prevention and Outreach at the school, which helps “address student concerns about alcohol and other substances.” Students in the program receive CPR certification and also go through role-playing situations on how to make phone calls during alcohol-related emergencies.

The purpose of the Red Watch Band is to create “a band of students who will watch out for each other,” Hwang said, adding that nearly 100 students have already been trained.

“We’ve received reports that some students have made calls for peers who have been at risk for alcohol overdose,” she said. “That’s a really helpful thing for us to hear.”

Stony Brook senior Christine Jerusik was one of the first to receive the training, and said word of the program is sweeping across Stony Brook’s campus.

“It’s very new, but it’s spreading quickly,” the psychology major said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity. I don’t think a lot of students know exactly what to do when it comes to alcohol overdose.”

A Medical Emergency

Michelle Fonda, program coordinator for Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s New York chapter, said the Red Watch Band sounded “absolutely wonderful” if it curbed binge drinking of the kind that happens on college campuses.

“We’ve found with binge drinking that underage drinkers are hesitant to call law enforcement because they have been consuming,” she said. “They don’t want to get in trouble. Unfortunately it has resulted in tragedy.”

Members of the Associated Student Government said NU has recently undergone efforts to evaluate its alcohol policy, specifically in regards to a medical amnesty program. ASG Student Life Director Matthew Bellassai said alcohol amnesty is an important measure to the NU student body.

“How everybody treated this topic – both ASG presidential candidates had it on their platform – so it’s obviously a big issue students care about,” the Weinberg freshman said.

Though Stony Brook does not have an official alcohol amnesty policy, people who call emergency services don’t get into trouble with the university. Students who receive medical treatment will talk to an adviser, but there will be no impact on their academic career, Hwang said.

“It’s not a level of should you or shouldn’t you drink, but what you should do to look out for one another,” she said. “Alcohol overdose really is a medical emergency, sometimes we forget because in the U.S. culturally we have a mixed relationship with alcohol.”

At Northwestern

ASG Vice President Tommy Smithburg said, in contrast to the program offered at Stony Brook, the awareness and safety information provided by NU is somewhat misguided.

“A lot of our education now revolves around (blood alcohol content),” the Weinberg junior said. “But that’s not always the most important information.”

Smithburg said ASG has found that students who want to drink can’t be stopped from drinking and they should instead be provided with information on how to stay safe.

“One of the biggest things right now is that students are reluctant to get help,” he said. “When you get beyond a certain point, you can’t rely on the fact they’re going to wake up in the morning. A lot of times that line is much closer than they think.”

The number of students transported to the emergency room for excessive alcohol consumption has increased in recent years at NU, according to statistics from the Office of Judicial Affairs. Thirty students received treatment in the 2006-07 school year, 63 students last year and 82 to date this year. Smithburg said those numbers may be underestimated.

Vice President for University Relations Al Cubbage said NU provides programming on alcohol use and abuse during New Student Week. To his knowledge, administrators have not been contacted about Red Watch Band, but the university would “be willing to take a look at it.”

“Anything that can help prevent tragedies that occur related to alcohol would be a worthwhile program,” Cubbage said.

Could One Begin at NU?

When she heard about Sunshine’s death last June, NU graduate student Carissa Harris decided she needed to do something. Harris didn’t have him as a student in any of her teaching assistant classes, but she wrote Sunshine’s parents a letter and set up a makeshift memorial at the Rock.

“I felt bad because I didn’t want them to think people here hate their son,” she said. “I figured they’d read it at best and wouldn’t be offended that a stranger would send them a letter.”

The inspiration for Red Watch Band, Fields said, came from Harris’ letter.

“That note written by her were words that I really wanted to hear from someone at NU,” she said. “I wanted to do something in (Matt’s) memory that would change the college atmosphere that people would watch out for each other.”

Harris said Sunshine’s story should prompt a change in policies and programs at NU as well.

“That kind of stuff shouldn’t happen,” Harris said. “Clearly the current policy isn’t working. Here, it seems like they’re terrified to get in trouble.”

Students and faculty from other universities and high schools have inquired about joining the program, Hwang said. Red Watch Band is supported by Stony Brook, though qualified students instruct many of the training sessions.

“Even if one student dies, then it’s an example of the fact that no matter what, there’s always a possibility of something going too far,” Bellassai said. “It’s best to have people who are trained and who are especially knowledgeable on how to handle the situation.”

Fields said although she has not heard any interest from NU to start a chapter of the program, she would like to see one in Evanston.

“This has to come from the students and administration working together to want to help kids,” she said. “We hope this program will help save lives and make campuses safer and kinder places. Then that will be an honor to Matt’s memory.”

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