Penn State

Could amnesty for alcohol-related emergencies save lives?

The idea of calling for help for someone in an alcohol-related crisis is at the heart of the death of Timothy Piazza, the 19-year-old sophomore who died after a fall at a pledge party at Beta Theta Pi’s house in February.
The idea of calling for help for someone in an alcohol-related crisis is at the heart of the death of Timothy Piazza, the 19-year-old sophomore who died after a fall at a pledge party at Beta Theta Pi’s house in February. Centre Daily Times file photo

Someone is having an overdose. You call 911. You stay until they are helped. You can’t go to jail. That’s how medical amnesty works.

Penn State students want it to work that way for alcohol too.

It already does, kind of. If you are the person who calls for help, you are safe. Penn State has a medical amnesty policy that keeps them from being disciplined, although they may be made to take BASICS — that is the Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students, the program required for first-time offenders. But if you are covered by the amnesty policy, you don’t pay the fee for it and you don’t have any other repercussions from the university.

The person who needs the help? That’s a different story.

University Park Undergraduate Association President Katie Jordan told Penn State trustees’ academic affairs and student life committee Thursday that one aspect students are struggling with under new attention to alcohol issues is the responsibility factor.

If it sounds familiar, it should. The idea of calling for help for someone in an alcohol-related crisis is at the heart of the death of Timothy Piazza, the 19-year-old sophomore who died after a fall at a pledge party at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house in February. According to the grand jury presentment, Piazza sustained profound brain injuries and was bleeding from his spleen for 12 hours before help was called. He died a day later. The fraternity and a long list of members have been charged criminally for hazing and alcohol crimes.

However, Jordan said the issues are sometimes more complicated for students, in part because of that amnesty policy. If you call for help for your friend in need, they might face charges that could follow them for years.

“Putting a person in a position to make that decision on behalf of someone else has been a barrier,” she said.

UPUA is working with Student Affairs to find a solution. Damon Sims, vice president of Student Affairs, said he is implementing a two-year trial of extending that amnesty to the person in crisis.

The other part Jordan noted is impact to an organization. In some instances, calling for help might open up a fraternity to culpability.

That’s not an idle threat. Penn State has revoked recognition of 13 Greek organizations in the past two years, Sims said. That’s one out of every six fraternities or sororities on a campus where 17 percent of students participate in the Greek system. That includes the now-banned Beta Theta Pi fraternity, and the others that have been disciplined with suspensions since then, such as Sigma Alpha Mu, Delta Tau Delta and Alpha Chi Rho.

That’s also a bridge too far for Sims.

“I haven’t yet been persuaded as to the organizational aspect,” Sims said of the idea of extending the amnesty to fraternities or other groups.

Where the university doesn’t have control is regarding other criminal prosecution. The university policy can cover campus activities where the discipline is up to the school, but most fraternity houses sit in State College borough.

“Usually, if an ambulance is called, there is also a police officer,” she said.

Amnesty has been on the table statewide with some tweaks for years. Gov. Tom Corbett signed a bill in 2011. But some say extending the protection just encourages bad behavior.

Jordan has heard that argument. She says that’s not the point.

“This isn’t going to stop underage drinking,” she said. “It’s going to save lives.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce

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