STATE COLLEGE The night that freshman Joseph Dado was found dead at the bottom of a campus stairwell, Penn State's vice president for student affairs, Damon Sims, says he made a conscious decision not to have a knee-jerk reaction.
It was only four weeks into the fall semester, but already Penn State had been named the nation’s No. 1 party school by the Princeton Review. About a dozen alcohol-related sexual assaults had been reported both on campus and in downtown State College. A 19-year-old from Bellefonte who’d been drinking had nearly died in August after somersaulting more than 30 feet from an apartment balcony. And now a student was dead, having fallen while trying to make his way to his dorm room after a party.
Alcohol, it seemed, would be a much-talked about issue this year.
“What I did not want to do is what I’ve seen done countless times, year after year after year, where institutions decry the problem, make broad pronouncements about how they will not tolerate X, Y and Z, and then continue to sort of function in the same way, and nothing really changes,” Sims said during an interview with the Centre Daily Times.
“We needed to actually try to think about how we would change the outcome, and understand that this was never going to be, in my mind, a problem that was solved overnight. It’s a very slow process, and you have to be committed to it for a long time.”
Sims and State College Borough Manager Tom Fountaine sat down with CDT reporters at the end of the spring semester to talk about what town and gown are doing in hopes of making lasting changes in the drinking culture.
Starting in the fall, the university will unveil a more intense counseling program for students who end up being treated in the emergency room for alcohol overdoses. It will send letters of concern to parents of incoming students, and is considering, at the gates of Beaver Stadium, requiring that students previously ejected for drunken behavior take Breathalyzer tests. Community members are planning events to bring town and gown together, and the borough is looking at making public restrooms available.
Sims said he doesn’t think excessive drinking is worse at Penn State than elsewhere. But it’s noticed here, he said, because we talk about it.
There was a fair amount to talk about this past year. State Patty’s Day, for example, set a record for arrests. The student-created celebration also spawned other, more modest student drinking days. A hazing incident at a Penn State fraternity sent some students to the hospital with alcohol poisoning. And before the semester ended, a drunken student was badly injured when he stepped in front of a police cruiser during Blue- White weekend.
Administrators haven’t publicly said how they plan to tackle the problem — until now.
“Now we’re at a point where I think at least virtually everybody who needs to agrees we have a serious issue here that we need to behave differently toward,” Sims said. “I think there’s more of a willingness to do that, and probably less likelihood that people will push back against what we think are going to be very well-intentioned, thoughtful, evidence- based in many instances, initiatives designed to mitigate the problem and yet balance the many interests involved.”
When 21-year-old student Kevin Ignatuk stepped into the path of a police cruiser in April, with a blood-alcohol level of .322 percent, it was the third time his drinking had gotten him into trouble.
It’s time, Sims says, to be less patient.
“We don’t feel now we’re always getting their attention the way that we should,” he said. So students who have multiple alcohol-related offenses may face stiffer consequences.
For example, one consequence already in place at some peer institutions: A student who is removed from a football game for drunken behavior has to pass a Breathalyzer before going into the next game.
Counseling to help students recognize a growing problem also will be a major focus this fall, Sims said.
Right now, the alcohol intervention program for students who are treated for overdoses in Mount Nittany Medical Center’s emergency room draws about 400 to 500 students a year. Sims said students aren’t required to participate, and it hasn’t been as effective as the university would like.
So, this fall the university is moving to BASICS — Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students — a model recognized by the National Institutes of Health. Students whose drinking gets them into trouble will be given the choice of facing the university’s judicial system or paying $200 for BASICS.
The university is hiring four counselors who will talk with the students to determine the extent of their problems and possibly refer them for additional treatment.
About 2,000 students a year could go through the program. Students who complete it will get a clean university record — but only the first time.
“I’m convinced these professionally trained counselors will really know how to do that work, and will make an impact on students’ attitudes and behaviors,” Sims said.
As a Penn State parent who has been on the receiving end of the dreaded late night phone call, J. Stidd feels the judicial process needs to have some teeth.
“If you can hold academic enrollments over their heads, loss of financial investments, tuition payments negated without completion of terms, that’s the kind of thing that’s going to get somebody’s attention,” he said. “You don’t bend over backwards the second or third time.”
Stidd’s son, Aaron, was 20 when he was struck by a drunken driver speeding through the crosswalk at Atherton Street and Beaver Avenue. Aaron Stidd will probably never recover from his debilitating brain injuries.
For years before the crash, J. Stidd worked in the state prisons, determining how severely inmates should be reprimanded for offenses committed behind bars. So he talks matter-offactly about punishment.
But when Stidd talks about prevention, his rough-around- the-edges persona fades quickly.
“If there’s something that (my wife) and I could do to assist or to prevent this from happening to another family,” he said. “If we can say or do anything ... I would say or do anything. But the reality is that it’s still going to happen. You have to curb it, minimize it. That’s what your goal should be.”
Policies and prevention
The high-rise housing in Beaver Canyon and mix of fraternities and residences in the Highlands neighborhood couldn’t be a worse recipe for town-gown tensions, Sims said.
But when those apartments and fraternities were built, there were far fewer students attending Penn State.
In 1970, 26,174 students were enrolled at University Park. By 1990, that number was 38,779. In 2009, enrollment hit 44,832. The sheer number of students has added a new dimension to what many insist is an ages-old problem.
Fountaine and State College Borough Council members praised the efforts of student organizations and community members, launched in the wake of Dado’s death, to tackle the problem of excessive drinking.
But they say they were disappointed when the Interfraternity Council, about six months after it banned drinking at Wednesday night pledge events, loosened those restrictions as a reward to some fraternities for good behavior.
“We know students who went through the semester said it worked,” said Councilwoman Theresa Lafer. “We know we cannot change the whole country’s drinking habits, but we can change expectations for kids who come here.”
Lafer said she thinks efforts such as LateNight Penn State — which offers alcohol-free events — must continue. So should another student idea: having student auxiliary teams walking through neighborhoods on weekend nights.
“I think we are going to have to look and see if there are any other ways of enforcing the laws that are already on the books,” Lafer said. “We can’t afford more police and we’re already spending half our budget to protect people.”
State College Police Chief Tom King said he plans to spend the summer looking at programs that would focus on issues in the Highlands and Holmes-Foster areas.
“I would like to find a way, though difficult with staffing levels, to have a neighborhood patrol team that can focus on alcohol, noise, vandalism issues,” he said. “But I’m struggling with the fact that I’m down three officers at this point, and it just takes staff to get that done.”
Using student auxiliary officers could be one solution.
Police say they’ll also continue a successful program in which they contact hosts prior to large parties to remind them of their responsibilities and obligations.
“It’s been proven that you need to mix in preventative things to really make the biggest impact with alcohol-related problems,” King said.
Council President Ron Filippelli said he was disappointed the borough didn’t pass an ordinance that would have allowed, under certain circumstances, party hosts to be fined up to $600 when their guests break the law.
“I think with all the attention being paid to the alcohol problem over the last year very little came out of it in terms of public policy,” Filippelli said. “I’d like to see other ideas come forward for controlling alcohol and large parties.”
One change Filippelli and others would welcome is legislation that would allow municipalities to increase fines for certain offenses. The $300 to $400 fine for summary offenses hasn’t increased in 40 years.
Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, has been meeting with local leaders about taking that idea to the legislature. He says he’s not sure, right now, if it’s the best plan, but hopes to have a proposal by the end of the summer.
The Centre County Public Issues Forum talked about dealing with dangerous and underage drinking at a community forum in March. Cochairwoman Lou Ann Evans said participants liked the idea of having more events that would attract a mix of community members and students.
A task force is working those ideas.
“One of the ideas that people seem to really support was having an event like a block party when students come to town in the fall — welcoming them and getting to know them so that kids know their neighbors and neighbors know the kids,” Evans said. “What we heard from the students and the community was that if there is a relationship between people, it changes how you treat one another. So you’re less likely to throw beer bottles on Mrs. Smith’s lawn if you know Mrs. Smith.”
Taking on tailgates
Other changes in the works include making all Penn State dorms alcohol-free by 2011-12, sending letters to parents of incoming first-year students and finding ways of dealing with problem tailgating lots.
Fountaine said the borough plans to put portable bathrooms in town before the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts and will decide whether they should be permanent. Restrooms in the borough parking garages will now be kept open 24 hours a day.
Tailgating, Sims said, generally isn’t a problem. But there are a few lots “which have become outrageously bad places.”
“We are intent on doing something different about that,” he said.
The annual Penn State Pulse survey of students’ drinking behavior found these percentages of high-risk drinkers*:
off campus on campus
age 21+ < 21
GPA <3.0 GPA 3.6-4.0
GPA 3.0-3.29 GPA 3.3-3.59
*High-risk drinking is defined as having four or more drinks in a two-hour period for women and five or more drinks in a two-hour period for men at least once during the previous two weeks.
Student Affairs, the police, University Athletics and others will be involved. Options could include turning the problem lots into alcohol-free zones.
The Penn State Alumni Association is also getting involved. Executive Director Roger Williams said association President Barry Simpson is appointing an ad hoc committee that will focus on supporting town-gown activities that mitigate the culture of excessive drinking.
The committee will help design messages aimed at alumni, but, Williams said, they don’t want to “chide” association members.
“Our members are among the most loyal, supportive and certainly best behaved of Penn State alumni,” Williams said.
“As far as I can see they are not the problem, but they can be part of the solution.”