Drugs, alcohol factors in accidental falls

STATE COLLEGE – On Jan. 19, a Penn State student fell 16 feet from an apartment balcony, the seventh in a string of similar incidents that are drawing statewide attention.

Of the seven Penn State students who have fallen or jumped from dangerous heights since October 2012, two were ruled suicides and five were accidents, police said. One common thread ties the accidental falls: drugs or alcohol.

State College Police Chief Tom King said it’s unlikely not to see some kind of intoxication involved in a falling incident.

“They all consistently were alcohol and drug related or intentional,” King said. “It’s rare where the accident happens, and it had nothing to do with alcohol and drugs.”

The university’s battle with students’ dangerous drinking habits has been long, but Penn State Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims said in an email that officials have seen a decline in the number of University Park students charged with alcohol violations or being sent to the emergency room.

Though the fact that the most recent falls have happened so close together draws concern regardless of improvements.

“It’s kind of on the front of everybody’s mind,” King said.

More attention now

The Jan. 19 incident involved a 19-year-old Penn State student, who fell from the balcony of the Palmerton apartment building, located at 316 West Beaver Ave., State College police said. The student was treated for non-life-threatening injuries, police said.

The investigation into the incident is ongoing, but alcohol is believed to have been involved. State College police have executed a search warrant in hopes of finding the source of the alcohol.

The student has not been identified.

On Dec. 20, 22-year-old Penn State student Andrew Magargle of Pasadena, Md., was found dead near a parking garage on Fraser Street in the borough. Magargle’s death was ruled a suicide.

King estimated that about a third of falling incidents, in general, tend to be intentional.

About a month earlier, on Nov. 22, another 19-year-old student fell from a second-floor balcony at the Palmerton. Andrew Shearer fell 16 feet and suffered a leg fracture, police said. Furnishing alcohol charges are likely in the case.

Six days prior, 20-year-old student Conor F. MacMannis fell from a ninth-floor balcony at the Penn Towers apartment complex, located at 255 East Beaver Ave.

Centre County Coroner Scott Sayers said on Jan. 21 that MacMannis had marijuana, synthetic LSD and minimal traces of alcohol in his system at the time of his death.

King said a number of these incidents involve more than just a few beers.

“We’re not talking about one substance,” he said. “We’re talking about multiple substances.”

In April, a 24-year-old former Penn State student jumped from a sixth-floor window at University Gateway at 616 East College Ave. Joshua Zornberg “intentionally dived” through the window, police said, and antidepressants and marijuana were detected in his system, according to his toxicology report.

In December 2012, a then-19-year-old female student fell from the window of a fraternity house, police said. The woman, who has not been identified, fell 8 or 9 feet and suffered lacerations.

And in what was likely the most high-profile falling case in recent months, then-19-year-old Penn State cheerleader Paige Raque fell from a fifth-floor window at the Calder Commons apartment complex at 520 East Calder Way. The nearly 40-foot fall left Raque will a broken pelvis and brain injuries. She went to a Kentucky rehabilitation center and has since re-enrolled at Penn State. She is listed as a student in the university directory.

King said the recent rash of falling accidents is an “aberration.” He said looked back over records dating back to about a decade ago and said borough police respond to one or two incidents in the course of a year on average.

“I don’t think this is a trend that will necessarily continue,” King said. “I think there is more attention to it now. It could have happened in the past and no attention [was] paid to it.”

He said, though, that it is unlikely for falling incidents like these to vanish entirely. Especially for those who have made the decision to commit suicide, King said, there isn’t much that can be done to prevent it.

“If somebody has made this their decision, there is multiple ways that this can happen,” he said.

‘Deeply concerned’

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in a statement that university staff have discussed the issue with borough officials and others.

“Although there’s an assumption that Penn State students understand the risks of falling from a height, anything that can be done – particularly in concert with students – to bring awareness to this situation, discourage the dangerous influence of alcohol or other drugs, and to encourage safer behavior is being undertaken,” Powers said.

Sims said that “the challenges presented by alcohol, other drugs and emotional issues among our students” is an issue that Student Affairs always faces. He said few other concerns receive “a greater commitment of time and energy.”

He echoed Powers’ sentiment, noting that students know that there is a risk involved with any high balcony or open window.

Though the recent string of falls has become a high-profile concern, Sims said Penn State’s various programs aimed at student drug and alcohol use have produced positive results. The number of University Park students arrested for alcohol violations has dropped 24 percent in the past year. The number of students per 1,000 sent to the emergency room for alcohol overdose has gone down from 15.5 to 11.3, Sims said.

Arrests for driving under the influence, Sims said, have seen a decline of more than 50 percent. He said the percentage of students who choose not to engage in dangerous, high-risk drinking has increased from 47.2 percent to 56.2 in five years.

Even numbers for days notorious for binge drinking, like the student-created holiday State Patty’s Day that occurs each year in February, have seen improvement. Sims said conduct violations on State Patty’s have dropped from 315 to 178 in two years. Arrests are down from 408 to 247, and emergency room visits have fallen from 36 to 22.

State Patty’s Day was first held in 2007 because the actual date of St. Patrick’s Day fell during Penn State’s spring break that year. The holiday has been held since then and attracts more visitors to downtown State College than the actual St. Patrick’s Day.

Sims said that more than three dozen different initiatives have been implemented over the past several years to reduce unsafe drinking behaviors among students.

“No single initiative has offered a magic solution,” Sims said, “but the sum of them has produced evidence of improvement.”

Penn State implemented the Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS) program in 2010. Any University Park student who is charged with an alcohol offense, on campus or off, is required to go through the program, which costs $200 in addition to any fees related to the citation.

The university formed the Student Alcohol Committee in 2011, which meets with Sims to discuss any initiatives or programs designed to combat dangerous drinking.

Drinking is also banned in on-campus dormitories and buildings, even for those of legal age.

Sims said Penn State tries to connect with parents about the subject early on, as well.

King said there isn’t much university leadership, local law enforcement and borough officials can do about student falls beyond education or more extreme measures, like eliminating balconies entirely.

But he said, because “we know what the common denominator is” students can help each other by making better decisions.

“It’s a matter of when people engage in these things, they’re putting themselves at risk,” he said, “and it’s not the balcony’s fault or the window’s fault – it’s people making poor choices.”