Penn State conference takes aim at alcohol abuse

For the CDTOctober 8, 2013 

— Leaders from Penn State and representatives of State College gathered at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel on Monday to learn the effects of excessive alcohol consumption, present research on alcohol abuse and discuss ways to combat harmful drinking habits at the first Alcohol Abuse Symposium.

The event, one of the first of its kind, was organized by Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims and borough Manager Tom Fountaine with the help of a committee of Penn State students and faculty, as well as prominent members of the community.

This is a very important issue for us,” Sims said. “We believe very strongly that Penn State and State College have had real success in the many efforts we’ve engaged in (against alcohol abuse) in recent years, and we wanted a chance to both share some of that insight with others, but also to get people together who might in turn share their own experience with us so that we might learn.”

According to State College Police Chief Tom King, the number of alcohol-related visits to the emergency room by Penn State students has steadily increased every year since 2003. Four students per every 1,000 were sent to the ER for alcohol-related injuries in 2003, compared to 15 students per every 1,000 in 2010. King also said blood alcohol levels have continued to increase over the past several years, while the average age of a student arrested for alcohol-related crimes has decreased to just more than 20 in 2012.

In an effort to prevent the increasing number of alcohol-related incidents in State College, various partnerships among the police and both local and university-affiliated groups have been formed. King explained the function of eight groups that focus on dealing with alcohol, with each one specifically geared toward tackling one aspect of the problem.

While their roles differ, the same general principle is applied: bring members of the community together to come up with a solution.

One of the most prominent and effective groups that highlights this idea is the Downtown Safety Enforcement Program. Started in 2004, the DSEP is a three-way partnership between Penn State, State College police and the Downtown Improvement District. By training students who volunteer as auxiliary police, State College police receive additional “eyes and ears” on the street, in addition to receiving monetary compensation from the Downtown Improvement District.

“I think while building partnerships, we can find common reasons to be at the table and work together,” King said.

King also said he would like to see a mentor program implemented at Penn State, where incoming freshmen would be put under the tutelage of some of the university’s outstanding student body.

“There’s a lot of good students doing a lot of great things, and we need to partner them with freshmen coming in,” King said. “They can have a mentor that’s not necessarily their best friend, but someone who can pick up the phone in a nonthreatening environment. That can start in the high schools, especially with our local school districts.”

Fountaine said he thinks that one of the most difficult issues faced when attempting to solve alcohol related problems in a community — especially one centered around a university — is to avoid passing the blame onto others.

Fountaine also spearheads The Partnership for Campus and Community United Against Dangerous Drinking — referred to as simply “The Partnership.”

Led by Fountaine and Sims, “The Partnership” is “a collaboration between Penn State and State College to educate and support various sectors of our community while working to change the Penn State and State College culture to reduce high risk behavior that accompanies the consumption of alcohol.”

“Dangerous drinking among students can be a wedge that divides our community. The actual complexity and subtlety of this issue is easily overlooked in favor of either a simplified. “Animal House” world view or the complaint that too little is being done,” Fountaine said. “If we are to have any success at addressing the problems of high risk and dangerous drinking and the harms that this brings to the individuals and the community, we must come together as a community and share the responsibility and the work to bring about the change that we seek.”

C.J. Doon is a Penn State journalism student

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