Originally published on The Tab Durham in February 2015
[Note that most quotations from other news sources]
After the deaths of three Durham University students in the River Wear in recent months, the same question is being asked by all in the local community. What can be done to prevent others falling victim to the same tragic circumstances?
The focus of the police is firmly on the controversial issue of student drinking. Speaking to the BBC, Durham’s Chief Constable Mike Barton drew links between the circumstances in which the students died.
He said: “One thing connected these three young men who died in the river and that was they were so paralytically drunk they were not in control of their bodies. They have then walked or stumbled into the river.”
Despite the recent petition signed by over 15,000 people and supported by the Prime Minister, Mike Barton said: “Some people are saying this means we have to fence off the river. No we don’t.”
“What we need to look at is the personal responsibility of young men and women who are coming away to university, starting their lives and who need to behave a bit more socially responsibly.
“I was incensed when I heard some representatives of the student body saying the answer is for more police officers. It is ludicrous that society is asking me to put police officers on the riverbank to stop bright young things falling in. What sort of world have we come to?”
While his comments are likely to provoke debate, especially among the student body, alcohol awareness is clearly the focus of the police.
P.C. Mike Irwin, who tweets under the handle @AlcoholHarmCop, spoke to ITV correspondent Greg Easteal about his concern regarding student drinking and the impact he believes it is having on river safety.
He said: “What’s alarming me and my colleagues is the levels of alcohol that’s been consumed by the students. They’re putting themselves in a really risky situation on numerous occasions.
“We can’t be babysitters for the students on a night out. We have other responsibilities as well as policing the students in the city.
“We need the students to take personal responsibility for what they’re drinking because what we’ve now seen is that not only are they risking their own lives, but they’re now risking the lives of our officers and of the fire officers who pulled that lad out last week.”
“And that, for us, is enough.”
The Acting Vice-Chancellor of Durham University, Professor Ray Hudson, yesterday released a statement regarding the measures that will be taken to protect the university’s students.
“Durham University’s senior management is treating the matters of student safety and excessive alcohol consumption with the utmost seriousness.”
“We are committed to taking action but we recognise that these are issues which can only be addressed through a multi-agency approach. Addressing the alcohol culture which has developed in our society as a whole will involve a major shift in attitudes.”
Notably, the statement listed seven methods that are currently being used within the university in the hopes of improving safety. Each of these focused on alcohol awareness and personal safety, while none of the suggestions that the “University and Durham Students’ Union are working with our partners in the City Safety Group on” made mention of improved infrastructure.
Tab man Charlie Capel showed ITV correspondent Greg Easteal metal posts which previously were attached to “wrought iron gates” blocking the steps by Framwellgate Bridge, where Euan Coulthard was last seen.
Capel, who works at Hatfield College bar, provided perhaps the most sensible suggestion – blocking access to the river from these stairs “say between the hours of 11 and 4am” and so allowing, during the day, “sober citizens… can go down to the river when they do need to.”
This acknowledgement about the importance of both alcohol and a lack of safety measures to river safety is perhaps the closest Durham will come to a united voice on what must be done to protect residents and students.