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Published: Friday, 2/10/2006

Withdrawal from alcohol led to death of ONU student

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

ADA - An Ohio Northern University student found dead in his off-campus apartment last fall died from alcohol withdrawal syndrome, the Hardin County coroner has determined.

The unusual ruling comes five months after the body of Derek C. Falk, 21, of Harpster, Ohio, was discovered by his roommates in his bedroom on the first day of fall classes.

His death initially baffled investigators who found no evidence of foul play. An autopsy also did not point to any obvious cause of death.

Dr. Lawrence Kuk said yesterday that much research went into his ruling.

"These cases have been documented distinctively by coroners and medical examiners," he said. "In working with them very closely, that was the determination."

He said alcohol withdrawal is similar to withdrawal from any medication, in which symptoms can range from the shakes to hallucinations and seizures.

"Just like with any medication, the withdrawal symptoms can be wide, and unfortunately his were extreme," Dr. Kuk said.

The coroner said Mr. Falk had been a heavy drinker, although he declined to quantify how long or how much one would have to drink to experience fatal withdrawal symptoms.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, symptoms "usually occur in people who have been drinking heavily for weeks or months and then suddenly stop drinking."

Dr. Kuk said toxicology testing showed Mr. Falk had "a slight amount" of alcohol in his system when he died.

Ada Police Chief Michael Harnishfeger said ONU students, including Mr. Falk, had moved in over Labor Day weekend and classes were scheduled to begin on Sept. 6.

His roommates called police about 4:40 p.m. that day when they noticed he had not gotten up for classes.

Alice-Kay Hilderbrand, vice president of student affairs at ONU, said Mr. Falk's death occurred at a time when the university was instituting a number of programs intended to deter and deal with alcohol-related problems among students.

As part of a new, three-step disciplinary process for students cited for alcohol violations, first-time offenders are placed on social probation and required to take part in an assessment and intervention program called alcohol.edu.

So far this year, 20 students have gone through the program, she said.

ONU also has begun notifying parents when a student is charged with an alcohol offense. She said that has been done 47 times so far this year.

"For most parents it's a wake-up call," Ms. Hilderbrand said. "Some parents think we're wrong and they don't think their son or daughter would do anything like that, but most of our parents have been very surprised and very supportive."

She said the university also plans to put a campus-wide alcohol education program in place for next fall. The initiatives were prompted, she said, not by Mr. Falk's death but by the realization that students entering college today are much different than they were as recently as five or 10 years ago. Many have far more experience with alcohol.

"We really are trying as an educational institution to make sure that we have a number of processes in place where we can really assist our students before they get into problems," she said. "Not to sound like Pollyanna, but we really are trying to do it for all the right reasons."

Contact Jennifer Feehan

at jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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