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Student Leaders Dispute University Account of Risk Review for Outdoors Clubs

by on April 25, 2018 4:19 PM

A week after Penn State’s announcement that it would no longer recognize the Outing Club and other outdoors recreation groups, the university’s account of the risk reviewal process has come under dispute, with student leadership denying that the prospect of losing recognition was mentioned during earlier discussions.

Both the university and Outing Club leadership agree that there was a bilateral process regarding safety in the months leading up to the recent news, but disagree on the extent to which “risk review” played a role in the discussions.

In fact, the Outing Club had been under the impression that changes it had made to its safety planning and oversight were further mitigating what was already believed to be a reasonable risk profile.

University spokesperson Lisa Powers addressed the same dialogues, but seemed to suggest that the natural conclusion was the suspension of PSOC activities:

Student concerns were brought to Campus Recreation in December 2016. Specifically – the concerns were related to the types of trips that the Outdoor club was offering without appropriate safety planning or oversight. In February, Penn State leaders from Student Affairs and Risk Management met with 10 – 12 student leaders of PSOC and the club adviser. The meeting, which I’m told lasted about two hours, was followed by nearly 10 months of trying another model of oversight for the group. This whole process from start to finish was 15 months.

The nature of the discussions during that time was focused on how to help the club reach national standards for their activities in regard to safety and liability (liability for the student leaders not the university). The student leaders were – and continue to be – appreciative of the approach. This does not mean every member is in agreement.

- Email from Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers

Outing Club leadership disputes this characterization of the discussions.

We got an email the week before requesting a meeting. We were not included in any of the risk assessment process. The only “discussions” that happened pertaining to the risk assessment were with Danny Williams, who has been one of our biggest advocates and has been appointed as a messenger to deliver the news with no chance for conversation with those who were responsible for making the decision.

- Penn State Outing Club President Christina Platt

In recent days, the university has tweaked the rationale it provides to media outlets regarding this decision. At first, the university provided the following bullet points as examples how risk was assessed:

  • Environment and location of organization activities
  • Access to emergency facilities and distance to medical care
  • Risk associated with various types of impact likely in an activity
  • Impact the equipment used in an activity has on the risk of an activity (For example, life-sustaining apparatuses are higher risk than equipment like helmets, gloves, rackets, etc.)

But after Onward State’s initial reporting and the subsequent national media attention, the university-provided rationale has shifted to  emphasize “the misuse of alcohol in the context of already risky activities.”

In the same article, PSOC President Platt disputed the allegations, noting that in addition to it being inconvenient, dangerous and forbidden to take alcohol on trips, it is also far easier to engage in binge or risky drinking by simply staying on campus or walking downtown. Leadership from the Grotto and SCUBA clubs also categorically denied that alcohol played any role in their organizations.

It is possible that there were actually two processes ongoing, and that there was some second process dealing with alcohol misuse on these trips – but if there was, we haven’t identified any student leaders involved with it. The university was unable to provide an example of alcohol misuse when asked by the Post-Gazette.

When asked whether alcohol played a role in the earlier risk conversations, Platt said it was never mentioned in the meetings PSOC leaders have had with the university — there’s no history of alcohol-related incidents or injuries on Outing Club trips, and officers enforce a strict no-alcohol policy.

“The club has worked with the university to implement improved trip planning processes over the last year, and we have complied every step of the way,” Platt said. “We require at least one WFR/WFA certified safety officer on each trip. These are the industry standards for backcountry medical care.”

More than 2,000 people have signed a petition to retain Outing Club’s recognition with the university, but Penn State seems reluctant to budge from its position, even under fire from national media.

Davis Shaver, an advisor to Onward State, contributed reporting to this article.

Elissa Hill is managing editor for Onward State.
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