Special Reports

Both sides of College Avenue come together on the issues

The conversations at November's Public Issue Forum began with stories about wildly inappropriate behavior and property destruction fueled by excessive alcohol consumption, the inability of residents to feel safe on downtown streets and worries about people, typically students, intoxicated to the point of being a danger to themselves and others.

Participants of all ages were concerned that about 60 percent of the crimes committed in State College had an alcohol component, and that it seems to be getting worse. These concerns came to a head with the unfortunate death of a Penn State student last fall.

The remainder of these conversations involving more than 200 residents demonstrated how complex and challenging this issue is. You won’t find much here that is new — except for a greater sense of urgency and a renewed willingness to do something about it.

Some residents felt that illegal and/or excessive alcohol consumption is an example of students thumbing their nose at society, while many students felt they were being unfairly stereotyped. But there also was genuine concern that this issue has been framed as “Penn State students vs. town,” which many saw reflected in the debate over the proposed nuisance ordinance.

Many residents perceived a lack of sufficient law enforcement. There was a sense that the police were not visible enough and that they needed to be more proactive. Some felt that legal penalties — particularly for underage drinking and other “minor” offenses — were not severe enough to be an effective deterrent. But this was countered by those who saw these laws as so widely ignored as to be unenforceable. Similarly, the proposed nuisance laws were viewed by some as unconstitutional.

There is a sense within the community that “Penn State is not doing enough.” Because underage drinking statutes are so widely ignored — “pre-gaming” in the dorms is prevalent and unsupervised — many students have adopted the mentality that they’ll never get caught.

The novelty of being away from home for the first time and the thrill associated with engaging in an illegal but “harmless” activity add to the perception that this is merely a rite of passage.

A certain amount of risk-taking was seen as a natural part of the maturation process.

Meanwhile, parents were seen as naïve about what their kids are doing while they’re at college — partly fueled by the possibly incorrect assumption that there’s not much that’s different from when they were in school. This lack of awareness was seen as extending to parents of high school students, where there is already significant peer pressure to participate in unsupervised drinking parties.

There is a lot of concern over the costs associated with this problem. For example, the need to bring in police from out of town for football weekends and other big events — an expense to which students contribute little. There was also the recognition that football brings in money and that many alumni are here as much for the tailgate as for the game.

Not many participants saw alcoholism as a significant aspect of the local issue. It was noted that many collegeage students are “experimenters” for whom the addiction/rehabilitation model doesn’t really apply. One student suggested that “students may drink like alcoholics” but their behavior usually changes once they leave the college environment. Several people observed that collegeage drinkers tend to drink more, precisely because they are at a time of their life when they have few responsibilities beyond their classes. As a result, it’s difficult to determine whether someone is an alcoholic or simply one who drinks too much.

A lot of skepticism was expressed concerning the value of health education in the schools.

Recent and current high school students conveyed the sense that high school health classes are “viewed as a joke,” that they “gloss over reality” and that alcohol education doesn’t occur at an early enough age to be effective.

Participants saw positive portrayals of alcohol use in the media — especially in advertising — as a contributing factor, along with the availability of cheap alcohol and drink specials that encourage consumption. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that there is “nothing to do in this community,” so the only thing to do is to “go out and get drunk.”

A common theme expressed by students and permanent residents is that students are generally unaware that they are part of a larger community. There are not enough venues in which students can interact with other residents. And because many students are away from home for the first time, they lack adult role models.

However, we should be encouraged by the sentiment that, just by coming together, there is real hope that we can solve this problem. The turnout itself was encouraging and empowering.

David Hutchinson is co-chairman of the Public Issues Forum of Centre County.