We have the power to curb the problem: 10 potential solutions

March 1, 2010 

Yes, we can turn the tide of irresponsible, dangerous drinking downtown and in the Centre Region.

Yes, the problem is bad and has gotten worse.

Yes, many thoughtful, noble, free and expensive remedies have been put forth and tried, with limited or no success.

And yes, we have discussed and called meetings and studied, measured and analyzed and quantified, discussed and public “forum-ed” and panel discussed, charted and published findings, called in experts and renewed efforts and called meetings and published more. ...

But, we have learned what has not worked. Haven’t we? We’ve exhausted some conventional wisdom. We’ve tried what others have tried. We are in reality. What we’ve done so far is not bringing the results we want. The list, level, intensity and depth of our solutions have not worked.

We need to try some new and some modified solutions. Since we are certain there is no one magic solution, then we need a varied, fairly comprehensive, multi-pronged approach.

Here is a compilation of solutions circulating. Easy now, you might not like all of them or you may think that one or more won’t work, but we can do this.

Why am I offering 10 solutions?

For 21/ 2 years, I have participated in several dozen

meetings with four different organizations and efforts with some very smart, deeply concerned citizens, educators, elected officials and business owners.

For four years, our church has operated in Sozo at 256 E. Beaver Ave. at the heart of Beaver Canyon, riot central in the past decade or two. Sozo has become a popular alcohol- free performance venue hosting dozens of concerts and events. We know what happens in Beaver Canyon and the Highlands neighborhood behind Sozo most Saturdays at 2 a.m.

In addition, my wife, Jacque, and I are 30-year State College residents. We’ve raised three kids through their teens and into their 20s here and have one more moving through State High; one is a Penn State alum.

We have been Penn State campus ministers for eight years, then local pastors for another 22 years. We have a company with 35 employees and corporate offices on Allen Street. Our undergraduate studies were in psychology and sociology. We both had alcoholic fathers. We know and love State College.

Here are 10 proposed solutions:

Increase fines

Don’t say, “Fines do not work as a deterrent.”

Give this a chance. Our fines for summary offenses were set in 1972 and have not been increased in 38 years.

Fines related to underage drinking, public drunkenness, urinating in public, a first offense for using a false ID to purchase alcohol and certain noise violations are all classified as “summary offenses” with a maximum fine allowed by law of $300.

What would “$300 in 1972” be now? Using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculations, $300 in 1972 would be $1,539.74 today. Imagine a call home to mom saying, “I got a $1,500 fine last weekend for peeing in somebody’s yard on Highland Avenue.”

Finesarea deterrent. Why do you drive 35 mph on Valley Vista rather than the 50 mph that you and gravity want to drive? Could one factor be the $112 ticket from the Ferguson Township police officer waiting for you at the bottom of the hill?

Fines should have three purposes: to influence behavior, to bring accountability for illegal behavior and to generate revenue to offset costs to the community for the illegal behavior.

In the case of summary offense fines, this revenue stays in the municipality where the crime was committed.

If fines were doubled to $600, revenue to the borough from data I’ve seen could pay the salary and benefits for three or more police officers or a lot of trash pickup or sign replacement.

It’s fiscally irresponsible to make the taxpayers pay for what a convicted perpetrator caused.

Let’s at least double the maximum fine to $600. The local district judges would still maintain latitude in applying the fine according to their judgment and area. Let’s work with them to make clear the financial impact that minimal or waived summary offense fine rulings have on the taxpayers.

Community service

Add a community service component as a companion to an increase in summary offense fines.

“Shame is being found to be a better deterrent to illegal behavior than fines or punishment often are,” a local judge said recently.

Shame is a strong word, and it’s certainly politically incorrect to intentionally invoke shame to modify behavior. But studies are showing that shame works in some situations among certain offenders.

In coordination with the borough and the Downtown Improvement District, offenders would clean streets along with and supervised by the present street cleaning, DID work force.

This work begins between about 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. and is usually complete by normal business hours. The offenders would bear some of the effects of their crime by helping to clean up some of the aftermath of irresponsible alcohol consumption downtown.

A street-cleaning community service arrangement could handle 20 to 50 offenders a week. Additional, legitimate, substantial community service work could be organized to clean up neighborhoods, assist nonprofit groups and help elderly or challenged residents.

There are conventional community service options in our area, but let’s link the behavior to the impact of the behavior on the community, specifically, cleaning up the town.

Let’s make it real work. Let’s make it an inconvenient time. Let’s make it very public. Perhaps pink reflective jumpsuits could be issued — for safety reasons, of course.

Harsher consequences

Reverse our approach of mild consequence for first offenses.

Conventional wisdom has been mild consequences and education for illegal and/or dangerous alcohol behavior.

Let’s make the first offense painful. This isn’t a top solution, but it is a necessary starting point.

Our approach has been a warning, a lecture, a reduced fine, etc.

For a first summary offense conviction, guilty Penn State students get an e-mail warning. Let’s beef that up. Call them in and detail the academic, legal and life consequences of subsequent irresponsible behavior. Put them on probation.

Require time-consuming education. Have classes at 7 a.m. on a Sunday. Inform and scare them. Push hard on the first offense and let’s track and measure our success or failure.

There is a growing body of evidence that a tough stand first can save money and a wrecked life later.

Campaign for change

Market our values. Recently a local leader said this crisis requires a “culture shift.”

Obviously, culture is powerfully influenced today by media and marketing. Effectively informing, stating and conveying norms impacts culture. We can let others “market” the Centre Region and Penn State as they see or want to see it or we can fight back and market our values and hopes.

Let’s begin with three marketing campaigns addressing three issues and influence the local culture.

•“Why shame the name.” Engage the Penn State Alumni Association, Penn State administration, borough leaders and the DID in a marketing campaign to counter the university’s designation as the nation’s “No. 1 party school” and related unflattering or untrue propaganda.

“May no act of ours bring shame. ...” Sound hokey? It will work with some people. It will not work with others. At worst it will counter the popular notion that Penn State is lawless, out of control and the community can’t or won’t do anything. Let’s promote good character.

•“It’s not OK, and it’s illegal.” New students and locals know that underage drinking, public drunkenness and open alcohol containers in public areas are illegal, but many think these laws are not enforced. This is a common misconception.

Students need to know that the laws are enforced in State College and on campus. Returning students, teens, alumni, locals and old guys need to understand “it’s not OK, and it’s illegal” and in State College, you will be fined, arrested or both.

•“Penn State drinking myths.” A recent university study found that the majority of students do not binge drink before coming to college and about half reported to have never been intoxicated in high school.

Surprised? Could students be making bad choices because they think their peers have already been out-of-their-minds drunk in high school?

Let’s market the fact that most students are not dangerous drinkers or were never even drunk in high school.

Profanity not ‘free speech’

The “f” bomb, dropped repeatedly and loudly on an Allen Street sidewalk, keeps mature residents and families with kids out of downtown.

According to a recent Responsible Hospitality Institute conclusion, a healthy downtown has an age-diverse population. Parents and seniors are going to avoid areas where profanity is tolerated.

Again, it’s a sense of chaos, lawlessness and irresponsibility that we are battling downtown. Public profanity promotes more irresponsibility.

Let’s speak up. As a resident, a patron of downtown, when someone curses in front of your kids or your grandmother, speak up. Let’s market mature, responsible language. Let’s enforce obscenity regulations.

Community covenant

Develop and adopt with fanfare a community covenant, a standard of community values.

A community covenant was proposed as part of the recent Responsible Hospitality Institute recommendations.

Leaders involved said, “Perhaps the culture shift begins with a statement of community values. ... Let’s state our core values, our unanimous values. ... Let’s draw a line in the sand.”

Attempt to have this community covenant adopted by various groups, entities, agencies, businesses, houses of worship and neighborhoods. Inaugurate this covenant with a public ceremony, make a public declaration, have a celebration on the street with great fanfare.

This is part of a positive public relations campaign. We can then market our values. Nothing great happens until someone or some group takes a stand.

Educate

Require a one-credit course for all new Penn State students.

The course would educate students on what it means to be a Penn Stater and would show the latest data on dangerous drinking and the legal, academic and social consequences of irresponsible behavior.

Involve the Alumni Association, perhaps as co-sponsor of the course. Yes, make it a one-credit commercial for the Alumni Association while educating about Penn State and local values and issues. Let’s challenge students as to what we expect of those who are a part of the university family and community. This basic idea has been floated by a key local law enforcement official for several years.

I accompanied my youngest son to his Penn State orientation. At one point the parents and new students were separated. Parents were informed of university alcohol policies and rules. Next door, the new students were told by student leaders how to get around Penn State’s alcohol policies.

Let’s have a serious setting where clear expectations are laid out. This will protect students by informing them and hopefully instilling a lifelong love and support for Penn State and State College at the same time.

Promote entertainment

Form a Downtown Arts Consortium to promote and further develop State College as an art and entertainment destination.

A strong arts and entertainment community will counter the nothing-to-do-but- drink nightlife reputation of downtown.

Formation of an art association to promote a strong arts theme and culture downtown is part of the borough’s strategic plan. A consortium would include artists, venue operators, educators, the Downtown Improvement District and borough officials.

Alcohol-free venues and alternative programs could be coordinated and promoted.

Provide restrooms

Provide and promote accessible public restrooms during evening and late nights.

Urinating in an alley or in someone’s roses adds to a spirit of lawlessness late at night on weekends.

This is a serious problem, and not just for the poor home or business owner whose flower bed or back door smells like a urinal.

Think about it. When basic personal restraint is cast off, other more dangerous or more obnoxious behaviors likely follow. Young men and women are regularly seen and many arrested most weekends for urinating in very public places.

Provide several public restrooms downtown open 24 hours a day. Security cameras would be necessary to deter vandalism and perhaps a cleaning or two during the night would be required at additional expense.

Encourage bar and restaurant owners to put up signs: “Public restrooms” available.” This will be a major irritation to these operators unless every one of them complies and the borough provides three or more sets of public restrooms, thus sharing the foot-traffic volume.

An atmosphere of lawlessness and chaos can be reduced.

Clean up

Implement nighttime trash pickup, on the busiest Friday and Saturday.

If you want to be shocked, drive down Beaver Avenue at 1 a.m. on an active party weekend.

Several things might shock you, but take notice of the paper plate blizzard. Stand in Beaver Canyon and, in every direction as far as you can see, there will be trash.

At 1 a.m., trash everywhere fuels a spirit of chaos, which leads to more chaos and irresponsible or illegal behaviors.

By 8 or so the next morning, the paper snowstorm disappears. This is to the credit of the Downtown Improvement District’s excellent street cleaning staff.

This spirit of chaos has to be countered.

Request that businesses pick up trash outside their doors at closing. For the businesses open very late, request trash to be picked up two or three times during a busy party weekend.

It would only take a few minutes for each business and would enhance the image of all the businesses.

Perry Babb is co-pastor of Keystone Church. He can be reached at pbabb@keychurch.net.

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