WPSU forum seeks answers on drinking problem

nmalawsk@centredaily.comMay 3, 2010 

The panel from left to right: Lou Ann Evans, Care Partnership: Center Region Communities that Care, Tom King, Chief of Police, State College Borough, Tom Kurtz, Assistant Manager, State College Borough, Damon Sims, Vice President for Student Affairs, Tom Piurelli , vice president for Risk Management of the IFC at Penn State, Cynthia Berger, Senior Producer of WPSU and the moderator of the forum.

PHOTO PROVIDED

UNIVERSITY PARK — In the latter half of WPSU’s live forum on dangerous drinking, a State College resident rose to the microphone and asked a question that touched the core of the community’s dialogue.

“What are the factors that are increasing the alcohol-related incidents among the student population despite community and university measures?”

Damon Sims, vice president of student affairs at Penn State, took a stab at responding, saying he didn’t have the answer.

“Well, that is the million-dollar question that we don’t have the answer to,” he said. “I don’t think anyone does.” Sims noted that drinking is an old challenge to university campuses.

Nor is it a stranger to State College. However, over the last year, several events, including the death of one student and a recent pedestrian crash involving another, have brought the issue into the public forum.

On Sunday, WPSU hosted a live discussion of the issue and tried to identify possible answers to the question of curbing dangerous drinking.

One topic that often rose to the fore was consequences — increasing not only the fines and penalties for students or those caught in illegal activity off campus, but also increasing the on-campus response.

Sims said next year the university will begin a one-on-one counseling program called Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention of College Students for students who have been involved in legal troubles, and this summer will be discussing if increasing university sanctions for students would be appropriate.

“We want to define where the floor should be set at — a reasonable place where accountability will actually improve at the first instance,” he said. “And get them into BASICS so that the true nature of their problem can be discerned and we can go from there.”

Sims said that on a campus the size of Penn State — 43,000 students — some of the students involved in dangerous drinking are not just looking to enjoy themselves.

“Some subset of our student population, a population this large, is alcoholic or is on the verge of becoming alcoholic and you cannot tell those persons ... to behave reasonably, to drink moderately — that doesn’t work,” he said. “And it’s been suggested that as many as 3 to 5 percent of our students may fall into that range of the spectrum.”

Meanwhile, on the community side, State College Police Chief Tom King said discussions are under way with state legislators to craft a bill that would increase fines for minor crimes.

However, King noted that drafting the bill, having it introduced and having it pass as a law are several different things.

“It will take some time,” he said.

Other ideas presented at the forum included increasing town-gown relations through events, or programs; having students repair damage they have caused; and trying to market responsible drinking as a social norm, to change the way students perceive partying.

Moderator Cynthia Berger noted that the problem is not one that is in State College alone — communities around the nation are also having the same discussion.

She also later noted that based on the conversation Sunday evening, whatever the answer is, it must be a holistic one, encompassing all of the stakeholders involved — town and gown.

Nick Malawskey can be reached at 235-3928.

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