Special Reports

A challenge to make a change

In the roughly 10 months since my husband and I found a drunken Penn State student in our house taking a shower in our daughter's bathroom, I have had time to think about that night and its effect on our family, as well as excessive drinking and its effect on our community.

In the months immediately after, my thoughts mostly revolved around getting my daughter through this experience without being scared all the time. That is what this incident took away from her — a feeling of being safe. It is a tricky balance, because the world is a dangerous place and you do need to be aware of the dangers so you do not make bad decisions — decisions such as leaving your door unlocked in what you think is a “safe” community, only to realize the danger inherent in the prevalence of drunkenness.

Sure, the crime statistics are low in State College. But it is still a threatening environment to children and adolescents who have to witness drunken and lewd behavior (sometimes even directed toward them) and foul language when walking down the street.

The actions that occurred at our house are an extreme example of this type of behavior, but the low-level threat exists all the time and erodes a feeling of comfort and safety that a youngster should feel in a community like ours.

I have also thought about who was a victim that night. Certainly, our daughter was, as was the rest of our family. But as I have worked through my fear and anger, I have come to realize that the student, the intruder, was also a victim — a victim of our inane culture that condones excessive drinking.

And I have grown weary of sitting around and letting it continue. Sitting around watching and shaking my head, consoling myself with neighbors and friends, while our best and brightest hurt themselves and others. We can moan all we want about how irresponsible the youth are, but what about our responsibility to set high standards, expectations and good examples?

I think we have all — including the leaders at Penn State — missed the boat: The young are looking for meaning in their lives. Asking students to be responsible, to actually be engaged members of the community they live in, is giving them a sense of purpose and belonging.

Saying to ourselves, “Well, they are just immature kids who don’t know any better or who don’t care about anything,” while letting them continue to behave in such a way that is disrespectful and dangerous to themselves and others is doing a real disservice to them.

We, as the adults and role models in this community, need to raise the bar of responsibility. From what I heard at the Public Issues Forum on this issue in the fall, the students overwhelmingly wanted to feel included in the community and wanted adults to be more involved with them.

Think about it. These students have been under close parental care their whole lives and now are given complete freedom with very little oversight or guidance — or expectation of responsible behavior. We need to find ways to provide that transitional step for them.

It is time for action, and judging by the outpouring of letters and columns to the CDT on this issue, I am not alone in my awareness of this. My worry, however, is this: Are local policymakers, both town and gown, ready to express the will of the community by taking action? Will there be new policies enacted? Will there be real change so that there are no more victims?

While change is impossible without action by residents and the Borough Council, the university has a unique responsibility in all of this. It is the university that brings students into our community and educates them, and thus, it is the university, and particularly its policymakers, that have an inherent responsibility to design policy that fosters responsibility in its students.

I strongly believe that Penn State President Graham Spanier takes this issue very seriously and is very concerned about it. To his credit, he sent a letter that I wrote to him last May regarding this issue to anyone and everyone who could take action on the issue of excessive and underage drinking. And Damon Sims, head of student affairs, has been open and communicative regarding how to bridge the gap between town and gown.

But I am still haunted by the letter that Spanier wrote in response to my letter that was published in the CDT. In that letter he basically outlined what he has tried to do in the past and how it failed because there was such a backlash against changing the culture of drinking. Perhaps Spanier was ahead of his time. In any case, his main point in his recent responses, it seems to me, is that we, the community members, need to make the change.

The problem is that we are not policymakers. We can write and talk and meet and even picket, but in the end, the administration has the power — and a great deal of responsibility.

Although we all share in the responsibility of this community problem, the university policymakers need to take a visible and active role in order for meaningful action to occur.

We will only succeed if we work together, and it would be incredibly disappointing if this moment were lost. Right now the stars are aligned and there is a groundswell of support for many of Spanier’s ideas, as well as some new ones.

During these next few weeks of meetings and radio shows and newspaper coverage, please, you with power — whether you are from the Borough Council or Penn State — help us come up with a concrete plan of action that you can enact. We will support you.

Together, let us reduce the effects of excessive and underage drinking on this community and make it a place in which we are proud of living and show to the rest of the country that Penn State students can be great community members.

I am confident that the students will rise to the challenge.

Let us, all of us, not be afraid to give it to them.

Becky Misangyi is a member of Care Partnership, a graduate student in educational theory and policy at Penn State, a mother of three and a concerned borough resident. She can be reached at beckfm84@yahoo.com.