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Fraternity Fallout: How Penn State Students Have Responded to New Alcohol Restrictions

by on January 20, 2020 5:00 AM

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a student-written, six-part series that explores the fallout of the Timothy Piazza hazing death in 2017. This week, the series examines the impact of new alcohol restrictions following the tragedy and how Penn State students are responding to them. Part one can be read here.

By Sean Bradley, Matthew Bilyak, Olivia Royle and Ross Evana

A celebratory event welcoming a new member into an organization turned into a night that ended with the death of Timothy Piazza, a 19-year-old Penn State student pledging the Beta Theta Pi fraternity.

Piazza consumed at least 18 drinks in an hour and 22 minutes: He had vodka, beer and wine, leading to a blood-alcohol content of around .36 percent. In the early morning of Feb. 4, 2017, he was pronounced dead at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

In the nearly three years since Piazza’s death, the drinking culture at Penn State has been in the spotlight. While the university imposed restrictions on Greek life to curb drinking, and some university statistics even show positive signs, students say they won’t stop drinking liquor and beer because it’s part of the college experience.

Students interviewed for this article talked about why they drink and what they drink.

“I drink because I feel like it makes me have more fun,” said a 19-year-old freshman. “I also do things out of my comfort zone when I drink, such as talk to people more or (I) am just more outgoing.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s weird if you choose not to drink,” she continued. “But the people I surround myself with prefer to drink when we go out to parties, so I feel more obligated to.”

Students like her say alcohol is a part of the college experience, and it helps them feel more social. And for many students, they say it’s difficult to say no to alcohol.

“It’s just what we do on the weekends,” said Billy Donahue, a senior from Bryn Mawr. “It’s time off from school and class. As long as it’s not affecting my grades, I don’t think it’s a big deal.”

The issue of binge drinking on college campuses is not exclusive to Penn State.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported in 2017 that 53.6 percent of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month; 34.8 percent had engaged in binge drinking in the past month; and 9.7 percent engaged in heavy alcohol consumption.

About 1,800 students die every year from alcohol-related injuries, and nearly 700,000 students are assaulted by another student under the influence of alcohol, according to the survey.

Another 19-year-old freshman said she drinks mostly liquor at off-campus apartments or fraternity houses.

“I drink to be more social, and I usually have more fun when I do,” she said. “If I’m in a room where everyone is drinking, I want to also, so I don’t feel left out.”

Freshmen like those interviewed say they have to be discreet about drinking since they are not legally allowed to consume alcohol, and they face academic sanctions if they were to be caught with alcohol on campus.

Maddie Quinn, another freshman from Pittsburgh, said it’s a lot easier to hide a bottle of liquor in her dorm than a case of beer.

“Liquor is easier to conceal and more viable in a short time span,” Quinn said.

Kara Wentz, another freshman from Pittsburgh, agreed.

“It’s just a lot easier to drink liquor,” she said. “You don’t need as much, and it should last a longer time compared to cases of beer sold in stores.”

THE ‘POISON APPLE’

Experts at Penn State’s University Park campus who research student drinking behavior agree that the college environment and the freedom that comes with being a student enables students to engage in unhealthy drinking habits.

Kirk French, an anthropology professor at Penn State, teaches a class, “Booze and Culture.” He said students choose to drink because alcohol is easier to get once they arrive on campus and they are no longer under the eye of their parents.

“The fact the drinking age here is 21, there is more of a longing for it,” French said. “And it’s become some kind of poison apple almost of wanting to be able to attain this thing that older people do, that college kids do and when you finally get a hold of it you kind of go crazy with it.”

Once students arrive on a college campus, alcohol becomes much easier to obtain, so it is difficult for students to finally have access yet still consume alcohol responsibly.

“Alcohol is typically more available during college than it might have been prior to college, and availability can drive use,” said Hannah Allen, a postdoctoral scholar at Penn State who is studying substance abuse. “College often overlaps with turning 21, which increases availability and access to alcohol.

“Many social events in college involve alcohol use, so students feel like they need to drink to be engaged in the college environment and to truly immerse themselves in the college social experience.”

Students say they drink both liquor and beer, but their choice depends on the day, the time of day or the setting. They tend to drink beer during the day if they are drinking but not necessarily trying to get drunk. However, liquor is the clear favorite among students for drinking during a night out at the bars.

This preference can be attributed to the way the bars price beer and alcohol depending on the day of the week.

Peter Bridgewater, a senior who bartends and part-time manages at Cafe 210 West, said he observes students drinking liquor more often than beer and links this trend to cheap specials.

“We have all of our liquor specials during the week and beer specials on weekends,” Bridgewater said. “I think that we do this because when people come in on the weekend, they will pay full price for liquor, which is more expensive. This may also be why people drink liquor during the week.”

He provided an example: On Thursdays, the establishment sells 32-ounce pitchers of Long Island ice teas, which contain vodka, gin and rum, for $4.50.

“I probably sell 100 of them on any given Thursday,” said Bridgewater.

Although most juniors and seniors are old enough to go to bars, their drinking preferences are similar to those of the underclassmen at Penn State.

“I usually drink beer. I’d say that beer is drank more in volume, but liquor is used for its efficiency of quickly making people intoxicated,” said Dominick Vender, a senior from Wayne County.

Penn State students say they drink both liquor and beer, but their choice depends on the day, the time of day or the setting. They tend to drink beer during the day if they are drinking but not necessarily trying to get drunk. However, liquor is the clear favorite among students for drinking during a night out at the bars.

A CONSTANT BATTLE

The university closely monitors these factors that influence the way students drink, and it releases an annual alcohol assessment report that provides a five-year history of each statistic being measured. Published by The Partnership — Campus and Community United Against Dangerous Drinking, the report details several statistics such as binge-drinking rates and alcohol-related hospital visits, which help the university understand the yearly trends of student drinking behavior.

The latest report, with data from 2018-19, suggests there have been positive signs in regard to safe and responsible drinking on the University Park campus.

For instance, annual alcohol-related visits to Mount Nittany Medical Center decreased to 570 in 2018-19 from 711 in 2016-17. The number of police-issued citations for liquor law violations decreased by more than 200 from 2017-18 to 2018-19, by a count of 792 to 557.

The number of arrests for furnishing alcohol to minors also decreased from 68 during the 2017-18 school year to 23 in 2018-19.

Piazza’s death also spurred the university to enact additional restrictions on Greek life to curb binge drinking at fraternity social events. Currently, 17 percent of the student body belongs to a Greek organization, so the university has increased its monitoring of all social events. These restrictions include mandatory sober monitors at all social events, banning kegs and liquor from parties and enforcing attendance capacities.

“There are two main factors that I believe contribute to the positive outlook on student drinking,” said Linda LaSalle, director of Health Promotion and Wellness with Penn State Students Affairs. “Delaying Greek life rush to the spring semester and lowering the number of social events fraternities can host.”

However, she conceded it is a constant battle for the university when there are more than 8,000 new students arriving at the University Park campus each year.

“It is particularly difficult for first-year students because they want to be able to fit in with the crowd, and usually that leads to alcohol use,” LaSalle said.

“Although we have seen really positive shifts in key metrics, dangerous drinking is still a significant health issue for students and we continue to push for safer alcohol use,” LaSalle said. “We always have to mitigate that risk.”

Sean Bradley, Matthew Bilyak, Olivia Royle and Ross Evans are Comm 460 journalism students at Penn State.

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