An ice-cold beer at a tailgate party. A frosty pitcher of margaritas with girlfriends. A few shots with the guys. There’s nothing wrong with any of them ... unless you aren’t 21 yet.
With Penn State and other local schools heading back to class, law enforcement officers are preparing for a crackdown on underage drinking, hoping to quash bad behavior before it turns into something more serious.
According to Sgt. Kent Bernier, district office commander for the state police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, his officers are working with troopers and local police and meeting with campus officials “in an effort to reduce underage consumption of alcohol and pre-empt alcohol-related problems at colleges and unviersities.”
Penn State, currently down to number seven on Princeton Review’s list of party schools after peaking at the top spot, is no stranger to the problems alcohol can cause on campus. In 2014, a cheerleader fell from the window of a downtown high-rise during a party. In 2009, a student died in a stairwell after a post-drinking fall, just weeks after a different student almost died after a 30-foot balcony drop while under the influence. Students have even created their own holiday dedicated to binge-drinking, State Patty’s Day, which led to a rape charge and a two-man burglary spree this year.
Some downtown businesses, like Kildare’s Irish Pub on East College Avenue, say they don’t have to be warned of the dangers of serving your average 18-year-old. It’s something that is always on their mind. Manager Dan Stokes said that a weekly message goes out to staff with cautions and warnings, but as the students come back, the information is being stressed even harder.
Books of information on checking identification are kept and lights are available to servers to card quickly and accurately, he said.
“All of our staff are well-equipped,” he said. “We emphasize it every single day.”
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller hopes so. She sees more than enough people come through the courthouse for alcohol-related offenses. Each week, the central court schedule is top-heavy with crimes such as driving under the influence and underage drinking, as well as the violations that can come hand-in-hand, like criminal mischief, disorderly conduct and simple assault.
“The connection between alcohol and crime is clear in our community, and we always hope that students embrace the promise of the new school year without engaging in dangerous or illegal risk taking. DUI, underage drinking, false ID, furnishing to minors and assaults related to alcohol can bring consequences such as time in jail, fines, diversionary programs and possibly a criminal record, depending on the offense,” she said.
Those crimes can be costly in time and money. Bernier lists fines of $300 and up for the simplest summary charge of underage drinking and up to 90 days in jail for even a first offense. Habitual offenders can see penalties grow from there. In addition, drinking, lying about age to obtain alcohol or carrying a false ID can mean having a driver’s license suspended for 90 days for the first offense, then a year for a second, and two years for three or more.
But that might not be the only cost.
“Students have lost jobs even if they receive a first-time offenders program because of the timing of charges. Some landlords do a background check on potential renters, and they may decline to rent to someone with alcohol violations, and downtown, the point system may result in eviction eventually. Students living in on-campus housing can lose their room or apartment and be kicked out of school or suspended,” Parks Miller said.
She added that students planning to pursue a masters or doctorate might be in even more hot water.
“Students with a police record applying to graduate programs may find their acceptance delayed while the school investigates further. Various professional jobs will not be available at all if a student has a record,” Parks Miller said.
Does this really mean anything to someone who is already 21? It could, if that person thinks buying his 20-year-old girlfriend a drink is no big deal, or allows his underage roommates to share his beer.
“Every effort will be made to arrest any person that supplies alcoholic beverages to persons under the age of 21,” Bernier said in a recent release.
And that means anyone, including parents, police said. Furnishing alcohol to minors is a third-degree misdemeanor with penalties of up to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail for a first offense. Do it twice and it could mean $2,500.
Parks Miller is just as concerned about what else can happen after someone has been drinking.
“The often ignored reality is that sexual assaults often have some component of alcohol usage by assailant or victim. Students should not leave a party alone or stay after their friends leave. Be cautious with new friends. Most sexual assaults on campus are committed by acquaintances,” she said.
“There are plenty of fun and interesting things to do in Centre County that do not involve alcohol. Once you turn 21, know your limits and be responsible,” Parks Miller said.
“When you come here, behave as if this is your home. College can be one of the greatest times of your life, but what you do while you are here will follow you forever.”