Campus administrators mindful of dangerous drinking behaviors

Though there haven’t been any incidents of students falling to their deaths or serious injury at Penn State Altoona, the concerns about dangerous drinking behaviors and the consequences of those actions are in the minds of university administrators.

Penn State Altoona University Police Chief Mike Lowry said that falls are unlikely on campus, but that campus police are ready for any situation.

“Student safety is a concern no matter the circumstances,” he said.

Though balconies or windows might not be an immediate concern, two raucous parties over the past year have highlighted the fact that binge drinking is a concern at all campuses.

More than a dozen students were arrested in April during a party at the Nittany Pointe housing complex that Logan Township police called a “riot.” About 800 students were in attendance. Police said that one of the students threw a vodka bottle at a cruiser, and students were throwing beer bottles off balconies.

Not all of those who were arrested were drinking.

In October, eight more people were charged at a second party at Nittany Pointe. Penn State Altoona Chancellor Lori Bechtel-Wherry told the Mirror at that time that she was “disheartened” by the behavior.

But Joy Himmel, director of health and wellness at Penn State Altoona, said the majority of students at the campus do make “good decisions” when it comes to drinking.

She said 60 to 65 percent of students use alcohol or other drugs responsibly. About 20 percent of PSU Altoona students choose to abstain completely, she said, while the remaining students – about 20 percent – engage in high-risk drinking.

“What we try to get across to students is to be responsible and to make good decisions,” Himmel said, “and what we know is that most of our students do.”

She said that dealing with unsafe drinking is a “tough area in college health,” but a number of initiatives at Penn State Altoona have been helpful. The campus established a Health Advisory Board, with subcommittees that focus on alcohol, tobacco and drug use; mental health concerns and sexual assault and violence protection.

The AWARE program is an alcohol intervention program that targets high-risk drinkers and those charged with alcohol offenses, Himmel said, much like a similar program at University Park. She said it’s rare for a student to have to go through AWARE twice.

“If we’re looking at recidivism, it’s a very low percentage of those that come back because they had another offense,” she said, “and we do outcome studies with that.”

As far as prevention, Penn State Altoona promotes a peer-to-peer strategy, called Friends for Life, which reminds students that the have an obligation to one another. Organizers use T-shirts, bracelets, late night events and other social marketing to promote the program.

“We push that mentality that it’s your responsibility to look out for each other and have each other’s back,” Himmel said.

Bystander training also helps not only students but faculty and staff identify those who might be at risk, she said.

King said that concerns about binge drinking and the dangers involved extend beyond Penn State and its campuses.

“I think there is the culture of high-risk drinking in a student population across the country,” he said, with that high-risk drinking culture among a certain percentage of college students there are things that put you at risk for falls, for victimization, for overdose.”

Himmel said educators are well aware that there isn’t a be all, end all solution for this problem.

“I think we all wish there was some magic bullet,” she said. “We just keep educating to lower risk.”