From its beginning State College has been a college town welcoming students and embracing their traditions. That is why our fraternity district was built within a neighborhood where professors and their families lived, frequently with student tenants. Our downtown grew naturally across the street from Penn State.
Over time the increase of students outpaced the population of the town and now students outnumber permanent residents. This makes the once easy connection with students more difficult, sometimes impossible. Still, just about everybody who lives here has a proud connection to Penn State.
Student life commonly includes drinking. In the past few years, however, dangerous drinking has accelerated. Issues related to alcohol abuse threaten the high standard of living neighborhoods have traditionally enjoyed.
When town and gown are in sync, life is very good in Happy Valley. When town and gown are at odds, not so much.
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The growing trend among students is to drink more hard liquor in dorm rooms and apartments before going to a party, and to get drunker. Too many drink with the intent of getting drunk. Blood-alcohol levels are at all-time, life-threatening highs and trips to Mount Nittany Medical Center are on the increase. Plus Facebook, cell phones and Twitter have exponentially expanded the possibility of adding strangers into the mix. All these indicators are pointing in the wrong direction.
The welcoming, small town community of State College, the opportunities at Penn State and outstanding work of many students are being overshadowed by the unacceptable behavior of a few thousand people. What a tragedy that Penn State and State College are becoming known in the media for binge drinking.
The happiest students I see are fully engaged in exploring their talents — journalism students calling me at midnight, engineering students working on a project, EcoAction members engaging all of us to celebrate Earth Day, demanding environmental change, etc. Students are an important part of our town and contribute their energy in many ways — as volunteers and athletes and through cultural and academic achievement.
Not surprisingly, students and nonstudents tend to live in different worlds. I recently was told that students love State College because it is perceived as a “safe bubble” where they don’t have to be afraid to walk home unaccompanied at 2 or 3 a.m. Ironically and tragically, it is about this time of day that others fear the most, because this is when vandalism, property damage, assaults and home invasions are on the rise.
These trends are unhealthy for the drinker, the neighborhoods and our town. Students in the process of becoming adults need to learn responsible drinking habits.
The mindless destructiveness of drinking has no place in our town. We are better than that. The destructive and dangerous behavior of insanely drunk people is destroying the fabric of our neighborhoods and sense of community.
The issue will take a long time to correct. Three interwoven issues must be addressed.
1. To keep State College a good place to live, everyone must feel this is their town, too.
Part of being an adult and a resident of State College is the responsibility to be respectful of fellow residents.
To have a happy life here, students must feel a personal connection to our town. Some students, especially freshmen, find university life overwhelming and are unable to cope. Getting drunk may seem like a solution. Other, better alternatives could emerge if students living in the borough felt they belonged here, were welcomed by members of our community and were treated with respect.
Look around our town and you will see the common foundation of our connection to this place and to each other. Many residents of State College either work at Penn State, are retired from Penn State or were students who stayed and now work for Penn State.
The majority of borough residents are students. At move-in time, residents of downtown neighborhoods can join the existing LION (Living in One Neighborhood) Walk initiated three years ago, or start their own welcome program.
Lion Walk has teams comprising a Penn State administrator (including Graham Spanier), a borough official, a police officer and a student, to personally welcome students at their doorstep. A neighborhood LION Walk could easily take this to the next, more personal level.
At our annual block parties, neighborhoods should feel encouraged and comfortable to invite their student neighbors, too.
Students need to be made aware of their rights and responsibilities. We want students to feel welcome and part of our town. Their ideas, energy and studies at Penn State are a big part of what makes State College a great college town.
2. There must be increased consequences for causing problems
There are consequences to all human activity; that is how we learn. Without appropriate consequences for destructive behavior there will be no change in the destructive behaviors that are afflicting our town.
Holding people accountable for their actions is part of the answer. Borough Council is now considering a series of ordinances to increase police focus on the people and properties that are repeat offenders. Another recommendation, not yet on the agenda, would require large party registration that also educates the host about how to hold a large party without causing harm to others.
State College is joining with other municipalities to lobby for a dramatic increase in fines for summary offenses (public drunkenness, etc.) These fines, set by the Pennsylvania General Assembly, have been unchanged for 30 years. Research shows increasing the consequences for illegal actions does change behavior.
The borough will continue to lobby for an alcohol tax to offset the enormous cost of enforcement (60 percent of all police offenses are alcohol related). Beer sales from package stores are limited to two six-packs per individual purchase, but the same person can purchase 50 quarts of Captain Morgan at the liquor store. Hard liquor sales could be limited, too.
Penn State has a special role to play, since it is the reason students are here and is the institution they look to for direction. Police cooperation between town and gown is excellent; citations for off-campus behavior are sent daily to campus Judicial Affairs for review.
In the eyes of most students, on-campus consequences for off-campus behavior is of greater concern than being arrested. Penn State could send a very strong message of deterrence by articulating and enforcing prescribed consequences for specific violations, in addition to its active role of intervention and education.
Penn State is also considering a proposal to make freshman dormitories substance free in fall 2010. Such a policy is a good first step in sending the message that alcohol is unnecessary for a complete college experience.
Students play an essential role in reducing alcohol-related crime. Breaking into someone’s home, destroying someone else’s property is not cool; it is disgusting. We must do whatever it takes to get this message across.
One way is to have student leaders participate in peer-to-peer panels and work in conjunction with local magistrates in alcohol-related cases, recommending appropriate community service. In some cases, the peer panel could meet with both the offender and the victim, providing feedback and recommendations to the court
3. Mitigating the environment that leads to binge drinking
Although a minority of students is responsible for creating the disgraceful acts causing such turmoil, we are all responsible for solving this problem
Let’s face it, nothing will change significantly until the students are on board, and we have a way to go. In March, student leaders spoke out asking for moderation and restraint. Meanwhile, while social-networking sites invited people to attend and news stories about State Patty’s Day went global. The result was a resounding failure for our town.
A broad spectrum of student leaders, elected officials, administrators and residents are actively engaged in discussions. The Penn State and State College communities are talking openly and honestly about the serious problems that result from dangerous drinking. The dialogue needs to continue and become another town-gown tradition.
People are complex. We are each capable of being very sensitive and totally insensitive. We can all learn from our actions. That is the critical issue we have to bank on. And there are signs of change: the Interfraternity Council voted for a dry Rush Week in January.
Surprising to some, the result was better than ever: more pledges than expected. The students who pledged said getting to know the fraternity members made them interested in joining. What’s next? Students can do a better job of looking out for each other — not allowing friends to drink so much that they get into trouble. This is true friendship.
Today’s students are unique. This age group — 19 to 29 — are known as “millennials.” Unlike their parents, the baby boomers, millennials have grown up in an increasingly affluent time. They are savvy consumers, barraged by advertisements offering electronics, clothes and alcohol that bring the promise of bring status and popularity.
Our neighborhoods are the mortar that holds our town together, providing the caring protection of people who look out for everyone. State College neighborhoods have a lot to share with their student neighbors, and vice versa, once we reconnect.
Alcohol-related offenses affect everyone. Similar problems of dangerous drinking on campus have increased nationwide, and Penn State is no exception. This makes our leadership on the issue even more important, more urgent. Although we must all work a bit harder to recapture the spirit of State College, it is worth it.
As mayor, I consider this is a top priority for our town.
Elizabeth Goreham, former president of State College Borough Council, took office as mayor in January.