PSU should establish disincentive to fix alcohol abuse problem

Like many others in the region, I’m saddened and dismayed by the tragic accidental death of 19-year-old Timothy Piazza on Feb. 4, but my first exposure to Penn State students behaving badly because of alcohol abuse occurred about 10 years ago when the automobile and newly purchased State College residential property of some relatives of mine were vandalized in the middle of the night. Needless to say, they were traumatized. I was infuriated but merely mulled over options and took no immediate action.

Like many others, I was shocked again in September 2009 when 18-year-old Joe Dado was fatally injured in a fall down a stairwell at the Hosler building as he made his way back to his campus dorm after leaving a party at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at 3 a.m. I contacted Damon Sims, Penn State vice president for Student Affairs, and contributed to the discussions and a public forum about alcohol abuse that followed the tragedy. After the forum I emailed the Penn State trustees and alumni association with a respectful demand for action to create a strong disincentive.

I urged the university to adopt and vigorously enforce a policy of non-tolerance for students who plead guilty to or are convicted of violating alcohol-related Pennsylvania law, such as public intoxication, underage drinking, serving alcohol to minors and DUI. The policy should be to immediately expel such students with no refund of fees or tuition already paid to the university.

No trustees or members of the alumni association replied to my e-mail. After the forum, Sims clarified the university’s position on my demand for action. Quoting excerpts from his e-mail: The university’s “minimum standard vis-a-vis alcohol and related violations will increase next year,” and it’s “tolerance for egregious behavior and repeat offenses will lessen.”

“Penn State will pursue a comprehensive approach that will include clearly stated expectations, meaningful parental involvement, accountability, education, personal counseling and intervention, social marketing and policy adjustments….” And the disappointing bottom line, “Penn State has no intention of adopting a sanctioning guideline that effectively expels all students found responsible for alcohol violations.”

In the more than seven years since Dado’s death, alcohol abuse by Penn State students has gotten worse according to statistics compiled by university and State College police. The most appalling consequences of it — serious accidents and deaths — have continued. In October 2012, Paige Raque, 19, was severely injured in a fall from an open window in a fifth-floor State College apartment after being jostled by a friend as she danced on a table. She was not charged with underage drinking.

In November 2013, naked Conor MacMannis, 20, died in a fall at 3:40 a.m. from a ninth-floor State College apartment balcony. In September 2016, Byron Markle, 20, was killed when an SUV driven by his 22-year-old friend Tyler Fasig crashed in State College. Fasig, uninjured in the crash, was intoxicated at the time and has been charged with DUI, homicide by vehicle and homicide by vehicle while DUI. Finally, the fatal Piazza accident earlier this month at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity.

Assuming the university policy enunciated by Damon Sims in 2010 remains unchanged, we’re left to ponder three questions. Would a Penn State student be less inclined to abuse alcoholic beverages if he/she knew that getting convicted for or pleading guilty to violations of Pennsylvania law related to alcohol — public intoxication, underage drinking, serving alcohol to minors, DUI — would result in immediate expulsion from the university, with no refund of fees or tuition already paid? What loving advice — or stern warning — would parents of a Penn State student give their child under such circumstances? If adopted and strictly enforced by the university, would such a policy significantly reduce the number of alcohol-related crimes, accidents and deaths involving Penn State students?

After so many years of discussions, forums, seminars, counseling, and admonitions — without significant effect on the alcohol abuse problem — isn’t it finally time for Penn State to establish a meaningful disincentive to alcohol abuse by students, perhaps on a trial basis, so we can get answers to these questions?

Phil Edmunds is a resident of Boalsburg.