Penn State

'This mix is obviously dangerous': Were Penn State's outdoors clubs misusing alcohol?

Jacob Cramer walks toward the entrance of the Kepler Cave near Pine Grove Mills to join fellow members of the Nittany Grotto Caving Club on Thursday, April 19, 2018.
Jacob Cramer walks toward the entrance of the Kepler Cave near Pine Grove Mills to join fellow members of the Nittany Grotto Caving Club on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Centre Daily Times, file

Penn State says alcohol misuse played a part in its decision to disband Penn State Outing Club, Nittany Grotto Caving Club and Nittany Divers SCUBA Club in their current states.

This spring, Campus Recreation, a division of Student Affairs, reviewed all of its supported organizations, including 76 sport and the three outdoor recreation student orgs (which affects about 200 students). Changes were recommended to 20 registered student organizations, including the three losing recognition due to an "unacceptable amount of risk to student members that is associated with their activities," according to Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers.

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"In addition to the inherent risks found in many of these student activities that occur without fully trained guides or leaders, the behaviors of some students on unsupervised trips have become a concern," Powers said in an email Wednesday. "These concerns have, at times, included the misuse of alcohol in the context of already risky activities. This mix is obviously dangerous."

She said the groups are being "disbanded" in their current high-risk model, where students in the club are able to lead trips, and re-organized to provide more oversight by staff in the university's Outdoor Adventures program.

Student leaders took issue with the charge of alcohol misuse.

"As adventurers, we think about every move we make every time we make it, as it can be the difference between a really bad day and a good one. The student caving club has had no record of alcohol use that I am aware of. Consuming alcohol and then entering a cave endangers your life and the life of everyone around you," Michael Lacey, president of the caving club, said in an email.

The PSOC officers said in an email that they've maintained a strict no-alcohol policy on Outing Club trips this year.

"There has never been any record of alcohol-related incident or injury in the past. We support a zero-tolerance policy towards alcohol on trips and believe that dry trips are both safer and beneficial to our club culture," they said.

Similarly, SCUBA club has had no alcohol violations during the 2017-18 academic year, Nittany Divers President Alex Pulice said in an email.

Beyond that, the clubs' leaders also tout their safety records.

Lacey said the caving club has been required to have, at minimum, one Wilderness First Responder certified member and one Wilderness First Aid certified member on each trip (industry standards for backcountry medical care); while PSOC has two safety officers on each trip, at least one of whom has a WFR/WFA certification, according to the officers. They said additional safety officers must have a minimum of first aid/CPR certification.

The university's decision has been met with confusion from the community, with some wondering how hiking, canoeing or caving are any more risky than football or being in a fraternity or sorority.

A petition on to "save" Outing Club had more than 2,400 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.

PSOC officers said they're happy for the support.

"Our greatest fear was that this action by the university would compel other schools to take similar actions against student outdoors clubs, but with the overwhelming support from our community and the national attention that this issue has brought forth we don't believe that this will be the case. We know how much we care about getting people outside and we're happy that others feel the same," they said.

The SCUBA club has a different viewpoint on the change.

"Basically, the decision to no longer allow Nittany Divers to run trips is centered around liability," Pulice said. "We understand that SCUBA is classified as a high-risk activity. We adhered to the strictest possible safety standards and have had no incidents, but the world is becoming increasingly litigious. Though it doesn't seem 'fair' from the outside, the university's decision is actually in the best interest of students because it protects student club leaders from being personally liable for any lawsuits should anything go wrong.

"We're happy we were able to work with the university to create an arrangement where our club can still serve as a community center for students interested in SCUBA, and where a university entity will offer dive trips (and take on the burden of liability)."

Members of Nittany Grotto Caving Club Paul Winter and Jay Broderick talk about why they enjoy caving and their disappointment for the future with Penn State announcing they will not recognize the club due to a risk assessment.