Monday, December 21, 2009

Student Drinking at Penn State

I was listening to This American Life over the weekend, which ran or re-ran a broadcast that looked at State College, Pennsylvania the great college town where Penn State is located.  PSU is routinely voted the nation's number one "party school."  Translation: student drinking.  Alcohol is complicated.  The great American experiment with prohibition didn't work out all that well.  Alcohol is social lubrication, helping the socially inept (including moi,) mate since time immemorial--but, an utter disaster for many as most of us know;  alcohol is the cause of so many social and family tragedies. 

Part of the TAL episode that I heard looked at the details of the death of freshman,  Joe Dado who died from alcohol poisoning; as well as the legal aftermath for his close friend, Jack Townsend.   The TAL broadcast analyzed the relationship between binge drinking and the college athletic dollar.  To his credit Penn State College President Graham Spanier submitted to tough questioning about alumni fundraising, athletics, and alcohol.  President Spanier's statement on the death of Joe Dado and another underclassman can be read at the link. 

On the heels of this episode is the report from the Centre Daily News that a local State College bar agreed to a voluntary 22 day shutdown, and a reform of its alcohol-service practices in light of a investigation into the provision of alcohol to three nearly incoherent female patrons.  One customer served in this bar had vomit on her dress. As a Bad Lawyer I've litigated lots of alcohol-related deaths and injuries.  A recurring theme is the utter denial of persons providing alcohol that they just might aiding and abetting the death or injury of someone who is drinking abusively.  Yeah, right, I know what you're thinking, why should "denial" be the exclsuive province of the drinker.

According to the This American Life report, if I'm remembering correctly,  approximately 1700 university kids drink themselves to death each year.   The statistics are telling: most of the incidents occur at the beginning of the school year, among mostly freshmen, and the research establishes the strong correlation between "availability of alcohol,"  incidents of binge drinking, and injury.  Duh.  But then again maybe this isn't such an obvious point.  If the schools, and authorities come down hard on campus drinking, fraternities and sororities, off campus parities, and public intoxication, it is shown that fewer kids get injured and die.  Simple.  The problem arises, when these efforts conflict with alumni weekends, and drinking in and around sports.  Alumni organizations give crates of money to the university--anti-alcohol efforts often run headlong into fundraising. 

I don't purport to know or advocate for solutions apart from those discussed in the episode of This American Life.  I do think it might not be a bad idea to make this ATL edition required listening for incoming freshman.  Hell, there's plenty of time to screw up your life without killing yourself as a college freshman. 



  1. This sounds counterproductive, but a lower drinking age might actually reduce the binge drinking. In Canada the drinking age is 18 or 19, depending on the province, so kids can legally drink either in Grade 12 or first year of University. There's the initial period of partying of course, but when it's legal, a lot of this mystique is gone. And the kind of drinking is safer too; there's no scurrying around hiding bottles and then drinking as much as possible in as short of time so that they won't get caught. I mean, kids still drink a LOT, but there's far less cases of alcohol poisoning or binge drinking when it's out in the open.

  2. I agree with Kate. Prohibitions make everything more enticing--this is why "abstinence only" sex education is a failure, also. And why the guy your dad hates always seems like the one you want to spend your life with--when you're 19.

  3. I was 17 when I graduated from high school and went into the army. For the next three years I drank anything I wanted, as long as it did not affect my ability to appear at "formation" in the morning there were no restrictions. For a good part of this era I lived in what was then West Germany where wine was vended along with the newspapers on the street corner. I have no feel for the incidence of alcoholism among the Germans, but among the GIs there were binge drinkers and many issues--but, I have to say in this "college age" cohort it does not seem in retrospect nearly as bad as what State College and other big "party schools" seem to be experiencing, now. Maybe it's because the armed forces in my day were gender segregated, maybe the absence of organized athletic events (or reasons) for getting shit-faced. I don't know, but I do know I found the TAL broadcast provocative. As the dad of a soon to be 18 year old, it scares me.

  4. It's terrible! Of course I understand that all young people like to drink, but everyone should know his limit!! It's terrible!