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We Are Being Invaded

by on February 02, 2010 9:01 AM

On a recent Tuesday morning, a friend of mine was walking to the kitchen for her first cup of coffee.

She noticed a pillow and a blanket from her den in disarray on the couch in her living room.  Thinking it was odd that her husband would take a nap before leaving for work, she picked up the blanket to fold it and underneath found a cell phone tucked in between the cushions.

Not recognizing the cell phone as belonging to either her husband or any of her adult children, she opened the phone and started scrolling down the list of unfamiliar names. It then dawned on her.  

She had become a victim of a State College Borough Home Invasion.

To make a long story short, a State College Borough police officer returned to my friend’s house later that morning with a scared and crying 19-year-old young woman in tow. Approximately 5 feet 2 inches tall and 100 pounds, the young woman was still dressed from the evening before and had mascara running down her cheeks. She had been at a party on Pugh Street, drinking to the point of blacking out when, in her alcohol induced state, she decided to walk back to her campus dorm. Alone.

The student eventually ended up in my friend’s living room – in a house near the former OW Houtz. By the powers of deduction, my friend figured that the student entered her home sometime after 3:30 a.m. and after a long, dark and very cold walk in the wrong direction.

As both a faculty member and mother of three children, I find this story to be horrifying.

The “what if”s that could have resulted from this situation are unimaginable. Freezing temperatures. Dark streets. Automobile traffic. Interactions with people who may not have the best intentions or who might see an opportunity. Falling into a stairwell. 

Sadly, the drunk student home invasion is not uncommon for borough residents, although, according to the police officer, the incidents usually happen closer to the lights of downtown and the fraternity district. Unlocked doors, open cars, porches and yards are ripe for drunk students to either fall into or seek out when their judgment and decision making is impaired.  

With the death of Joseph Dado last fall and the student-organized “State Patty’s Day” rearing its head again, the university and State College communities are heating up the debate about alcohol. 

There has been extensive research on the adolescent brain and its reaction to alcohol. First and foremost, we know our brains (as well as our capacity for judgment and decision-making) are still forming through our early 20s.

Research has also demonstrated that alcohol interacts with a young brain very differently than an older one (e.g. levels of euphoria, tolerance, hangover related symptoms). Combine that with kids experiencing life without Mommy and Daddy’s supervision for the first time, peer influences, messages from popular media, and college partying viewed as a rite of passage, and it’s a recipe for disaster.  

Last, the “nothing bad will ever happen to me” thinking that defines adolescence means that many minimize the risk of their decisions. Those risks become magnified by intoxication.

As a Mom and as a Penn State faculty member, I find it to be frightening. I have conversations with students about drinking in class, in advising and when my own kid comes home to do her laundry. It's mind boggling how binge drinking until one is physically ill or blacks out has become so accepted. Do we think that college students drink? Yes. Do they have to put themselves at risk when they do? Definitely not.

Without bowing to underage and binge drinking as inevitable, there are conversations that we can and should be having that may keep some of these young people off stranger’s couches or out of the home of someone who thinks they are a burglar. It’s called responsible drinking.

Rule #1. Monitor your intake. Most 18-25 year olds don’t understand the real risks of over-indulgence or the cumulative effects of alcohol consumption, the long term impact on their brains and the eventual consequences of addiction. The seeds of alcoholism are planted in childhood and adolescence. How important do you want alcohol to be in your future?   

Rule #2. Don’t take an open drink. As a faculty member, I have heard first-person accounts of students – both men and women – who have been either handed an open drink or who left their open drink unattended and later lost 5-6 hours of memory. Several of those first-person accounts had horrible and life-changing results. Drugs put in a drink is not an Urban Myth, and it happens right here at PSU.

Rule #3. Don’t ever walk home alone. This is true if one is at a party or just at the library or HUB. University Park and State College are very safe places, but there is no such thing as “crime-free.” Walking in pairs or in groups minimizes that someone will end up vulnerable and/or injured.

Rule #4. Most important of all is to watch out for your friends. Identify someone each time that you go out who will promise to be the “designated sober friend.” Don’t let your friends drink too much, leave alone, go off with someone that he or she doesn’t know, or stay at the party when everyone else is going home. The newspaper is full of reports of students who were alone when they became victims – and perpetrators – of crime. My first question is always "Where were their friends?" 

As Town and Gown work together to continue to identify solutions, we need to have conversations rather than point fingers. We know that it’s not always just the students who are drinking too much, and we know that not all students drink.

We also know that the drinking patterns of some students have changed. Drinking has evolved from kegs and pitchers of beer to “gin buckets” and pitchers of mixed drinks with straws in them. We know that there will always be a certain percentage that will remain in the high-risk category. We know that we have to work together to change the culture.

In the end, my friend decided not to press charges. The girl’s mother called later that day, also in tears, to thank my friend and apologize on behalf of their family. Her husband was on his way from out of state to pick up their daughter and take her home for some conversations about her future.  My friend’s response? “I’m just glad she found my open door.”  

We’ve seen the alternatives and know that we can’t tolerate the loss of another future.

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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