Is Penn State a party school? Here’s what’s being done to change that perception
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Alcohol often puts Penn State in the spotlight. Here’s its plan to curb high-risk drinking
Joe Dado’s BAC was 0.169 when he died in 2009.
Three years later, Paige Raque fell about 40 feet from a window at a party and suffered a severe brain injury and broken pelvis.
Timothy Piazza had 18 drinks in 82 minutes during a Beta Theta Pi hazing ritual in 2017 before falling down a flight of stairs and sustaining fatal injuries.
In each national-headline-making case, their fellow students were charged in supplying them with the alcohol that led to their deaths or injuries.
At University Park, Penn State is tasked with educating its 46,000 undergraduate students on dangerous drinking and its side effects and mitigating the harm it causes not only to individuals but also the community as a whole.
“Awareness of the grim consequences too often associated with irresponsible use of alcohol is a prerequisite to the action required. …,” Damon Sims, Penn State vice president for Student Affairs, said in an email. “Our focus must always be on education, as we try to enlighten and inspire our students toward healthy lifestyle choices.
“But if there are no consequences for egregious violation of our community expectations, too often the educational efforts will not stick. It’s a balancing act, like so many other things we do in partnership with students, but it can be a critically important one.”
There are other consequences associated with high-risk drinking: hangovers, being unable to remember parts of the night, doing something you might regret. And students also experience repercussions because of their peers’ drinking, like being sexually assaulted, having property damaged, having to babysit a drunk friend or having studying interrupted.
In 2017, 70.5 and 67.4 percent of students reported drinking on Friday and Saturday nights, respectively, according to The Partnership - Campus and Community United Against Dangerous Drinking 2016-17 Annual Assessment Report.
There were 711 Penn State student alcohol-related visits to Mount Nittany Medical Center in 2016-17, with the heaviest months being September (120) and October (117), according to the report. The average blood alcohol content level was 0.254 (more than three times the legal limit to drive).
There were 514 total alcohol-related visits in 2012-13, according to the report.
“High-risk and underage drinking continue to be persistent challenges and a significant national public health problem,” Lawrence Lokman, Penn State vice president for Strategic Communications, said in an email. “Penn State leaders remain committed to trying a mix of strategies that will impact harmful behaviors caused by alcohol abuse and which also compromise our campus safety.”
And because many students live off-campus, the bars are located primarily downtown and Penn State is a dry campus, much of the activity that goes along with excessive drinking pours into State College and the surrounding region.
What measures are Penn State taking?
When it comes to excessive drinking during Penn State activities, it’s not just students who are to blame.
Saturday kicked off Penn State’s 2018 football season, bringing in enough out-of-town alumni and visitors to make State College the third-largest city in the state.
Many of those visitors participate in the time-honored tradition of tailgating before and after the games, and visiting their favorite downtown State College watering holes.
Penn State police has mutual aid agreements with multiple agencies in Centre County — along with assistance from state and federal personnel — that support the department with large-scale events. They also work with Liquor Control Enforcement agents, through the Pennsylvania State Police, according to Sgt. Monica Himes, who leads the department’s Community-Oriented Policing Unit.
There’s really “no difference” in the way Penn State police approach event and non-event weekends, Himes said.
Police “enforce the same things the same ways,” she said, adding that people just tend to be more concentrated in certain areas.
“I wish alcohol didn’t have to be a central feature in so many social experiences all of us enjoy,” Sims said. “Even so, I’d like to think that alcohol, used in moderation by those who do not experience concerns with addiction, can be an appropriate element of social life, at least for those of age who choose to make it so.
“Drunkenness, on the other hand, no matter where or when it occurs, always sets a bad example and should have no place among us.”
Although Penn State doesn’t have much control over its visitors, it does take on the responsibility of educating its students on the negative effects of excessive drinking and how to make healthy choices.
Penn State requires all incoming first-year students, who are 21 and younger, to complete an online alcohol education module prior to arriving on campus, said Linda LaSalle, director of Penn State Health Promotion and Wellness.
Penn State Student Alcohol Feedback and Education is an hour-long Penn State-specific program that provides information about alcohol and its effects on the body, Pennsylvania’s alcohol-related laws, university policies and resources and the student Code of Conduct.
Of the 8,873 eligible students in 2016-17, 94.2 percent participated in SAFE, according to the assessment report.
When Penn State SAFE launched in 2011, the university conducted a randomized, controlled trial (run by a faculty member at Penn State Hershey) that involved 600 University Park students, LaSalle said.
She said the control group received Penn State SAFE in a delayed time frame so that the university could compare alcohol use behaviors and negative consequences to the students who had taken the program.
Students who took SAFE showed lower drinking rates, and that was a “statistically significant difference,” LaSalle said. There were also fewer negative consequences for students who took the program.
“That study demonstrated that it was effective and had positive outcomes,” she said.
SAFE is in the process of being redesigned, and the new version will launch in January, according to Lokman.
Penn State students also receive a variety of written materials with information about alcohol, laws and university resources.
And there are programs available to help students who have already experienced negative effects of alcohol to learn to make healthier and lower-risk decisions.
When students have a first-time alcohol policy violation or first-time underage drinking, public drunkenness, DUI or alcohol-related emergency room visit, they’re required to take a program called Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students, LaSalle said.
It’s a harm-reduction approach that helps students look at how their alcohol use might be contributing to negative consequences and strategize about behavior changes that can lower their risk, she said. It consists of two one-hour, one-on-one sessions with a staff person.
It costs $250 for mandated students, but LaSalle said any student who is worried about his or her alcohol use can take it for free.
More than 1,200 University Park students completed BASICS in 2016-17, and almost 250 of them were further mandated to complete the next level of the program, according to the 2016-17 assessment report. In 2012-13, 1,500 students completed the first level of BASICS.
“As an RA (resident assistant), I spoke to plenty of residents who participated in (BASICS), and it’s not something they want to have to do again,” said Cody Heaton, University Park Undergraduate Association president. “I think it’s effective in teaching students how to make good choices and start thinking about their actions.”
He continued: “I think it is a growing process. We provide them with all the information to help them make the best decisions possible, whether they follow it or not is their choice.”
The university has taken a “comprehensive” and “very strong” approach to addressing students’ high-risk drinking and alcohol abuse, LaSalle said.
“Penn State’s really committed to making sure that we’re using evidence-based practice and that we’re following the recommendations from national experts,” she said.
Heaton said that when he was an RA in East Halls, he didn’t have too many problems with Penn State students — it was more visiting students who gave him issues.
“I think that says something right there that what we’re providing has an impact,” he said.
In January, the student government updated Penn State’s Responsible Action Protocol to include protection from university Code of Conduct sanctions for students who call for medical help for a peer who had overdosed on drugs or alcohol on campus. The protections also apply to the student who overdosed, Heaton said.
The protocol had previously only covered amnesty from legal ramifications, he said. UPUA is now working to get the protocol codified in the state legislature so it can apply to students who call for help off of university property as well.
In 2016-17, the Office of Student Conduct processed 1,154 alcohol charges and 252 drug charges, according to the assessment report.
Are Penn State’s initiatives working?
To an extent, alcohol will always be an issue at any major university or college town.
Alcohol statistics compiled by the campus community partnership show that alcohol use remains pretty steady year after year, with some minor fluctuations.
Penn State has been a regular occupant of national top party school lists, recently landing at No. 8 on Niche.com’s 2018 list.
“I think part of the problem here is that a lot of prestigious public universities have these cultures, and partly what attracts students to these schools is the party culture,” said Jason Whitney, program coordinator of the Penn State Collegiate Recovery Community, which supports students in recovery from alcohol and other substance use disorders.
By ranking party schools, Whitney said, these websites can actually do harm by making students believe that by drinking, they’re helping the university.
“They’re trying to create a mythology that legitimizes the behavior of a group that is not even in the majority,” he said.
According to the assessment report, 53.1 percent of students either didn’t drink or didn’t engage in high-risk drinking during a two-week period in 2017. About 27 percent of students engaged in high-risk drinking one to two times, 13.4 percent did three to four times and 6.6 percent did five or more times.
In 2009, Penn State topped the Princeton Review’s list, two years after a few students created the annual drinking holiday, State Patty’s Day.
In just a few short years, State Patty’s Day went from an idea between a few friends who wanted to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day together early, as the holiday fell over spring break, to a weekend-long drinking holiday that at its peak in 2011 saw 656 total calls for service, 337 arrests and citations and 20 DUIs between Penn State and State College police.
Penn State and the State College borough, along with law enforcement and public safety officials, downtown merchants and bar owners, among others, teamed up to form the Campus Community Partnership United Against Dangerous Drinking in 2008 to address risky alcohol consumption and lighten the burden on police and EMS.
The effects of the partnership were most directly seen on State Patty’s Day, which became one of Penn State’s largest successes in helping to reduce dangerous drinking.
According to State College police statistics, there’s been a 50.1 percent decrease in total crimes reported between both Penn State and State College police from 2011 to this year on State Patty’s Day. That includes a 52.5 percent decrease in total arrests and citations and a 90 percent decrease in driving under the influence.
The busloads of Kelly-green-clad visitors that used to pour into State College each March have also decreased.
Two of the main reasons for that, according to State College Community Relations Officer Adam Salyards, is the police department’s low-tolerance policy for big weekends and Penn State’s Office of Student Conduct’s practice of calling other universities to notify them when a visiting student got in trouble.
“For cases where we might have normally given somebody a break, we don’t give them a break on those weekends because we want the word to get onto the street that you’re not going to come to State College and cause mayhem and leave the town in a mess and have no concerns,” Salyards said.
Another contributing factor, Lokman said, was the alcohol-free zone established by the partnership downtown in 2013 and 2014 involving bars, taverns, restaurants and bottle shops.
Although Penn State and State College have had success in limiting the negative consequences of State Patty’s Day, the faux holiday is only a symptom of the larger issue of excessive drinking that sends flocks of students out to State College bars, apartments and fraternities every weekend.
In 2016-17, according to the assessment report, State College and Penn State police issued students 218 citations for public drunkenness, 709 for liquor law violations and made 66 arrests for DUI.
“Until people understand what is meaningful to students about partying, they’re not going to be very effective in changing the culture. They have to understand the partying is meaningful and that the students are ultimately trying to serve the university by doing this,” Whitney said.
Penn State’s programming is “robust,” Sims said, as is the university’s combination of discipline and counseling in response to students’ alcohol-related misbehavior.
“If I could change two things, they would be the broader society’s tendency to underplay the harm associated with alcohol and the state’s continued expansion of access to alcohol while failing to provide local jurisdictions the tax resources required to more effectively address the problems that inevitably result,” he said.
Former CDT intern Lauren Lee contributed to this report.