Our View | Better decisions about alcohol, drugs best defense against tragedies

November 30, 2013 

One Penn State student plummets, naked and high on synthetic acid, to his death from a ninth-floor apartment balcony.

Less than a week later, another student topples off a second-floor balcony at a different downtown State College apartment and breaks his leg. Police think alcohol may have played a part.

Those November accidents came about a year after a Penn State cheerleader’s brush with death. Dancing on a table near an open window, she plunged several floors but miraculously survived.

Longtime State College residents can point to plenty of past instances of students crashing down from high-rise apartments in Beaver Canyon and elsewhere in town.

Has it come down to this, to Penn State students falling every year as predictably as leaves?

Mixing a young population drawn to binge drinking with lofty terraces does seem like a perpetual tragedy in the making. When will the next fall happen? Which parents will grieve next for a son or daughter?

We’re upset and worried, and it’s human nature to need a villian, someone or something to blame.

But regretably, it’s not that simple.

Are landlords at fault? Removing existing balconies just isn’t a realistic option.

Should we then have building owners restrict access to them? That also doesn’t seem feasible, given that tenants have paid for the feature.

Maybe landlords should install protective features, such as higher railings, bars or screens on balconies, or even safety nets below. As for windows, they could be adjusted to open only partway.

Beyond the aesthetic considerations — do we really want nets strung out like Spider-Man decorated the town? — there’s the problem of cost. It would be nice if landlords spent huge sums to retrofit buildings out of the goodness of their hearts, but we live in the real world.

Of course, balconies could be banned in future apartment buildings. But that doesn’t address the dozens of existing ones, including the many that haven’t been the scenes of tragedy.

Well then, what about the age-old common thread, alcohol and drugs?

We fully support the continued monitoring of legal sales and consumption of alcohol, a perennial issue in this town. And police must crack down on the so-called designer drugs such as the fake LSD taken by the student before he fell and died. Given their chemical mysteries, they’re particularly evil narcotics.

But short of the town going dry — which worked out dandy in the 1920s — students are going to drink. Some will take drugs.

In a college town, that’s a fact of life.

Which leaves the students themselves, and the decisions they make.

The balconies are here to stay. So is the presence of alcohol and drugs, despite the efforts of police.

The one thing that can change is behavior.

Students living in apartments with balconies or visiting them have to realize that only good judgment stands between them and disaster. And we all know what often happens to judgment after several drinks or tokes, or even one pink pill.

Keep the parties inside and stay away from the ledges. For God’s sake, stay off the railings. No foolish stunts or posing are worth the risk.

Again, there’s no easy fix. Even stone-cold sober, there’s no guarantee of safety when you stand on a balcony high above a sidewalk or street. Accidents happen.

But when you make wiser choices in the sky, the chances of injury and death — not bodies — will fall.

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