Student reflects on consequences of alcohol-related 'bad choices'

April 13, 2010

University Park, Pa. -- Students who engage in underage or dangerous drinking may find themselves facing consequences much more serious than a hangover. Whether the behavior results in a citation or arrest by police, or is written up by Residence Life staff, students face the additional consequence of going through the Judicial Affairs process to determine whether or not they have violated the Code of Conduct.

Evan (not his real name) knows this all too well. "You have to be cautious about the decisions you make when you drink because there is a steep price to pay," he said recently.

That holds true for the 91 students (out of 241 total offenders) that police from Penn State and State College reported to the University for incidents related to the recent State Patty's Day celebration. These students, who account for less than half of the total number of offenders cited or arrested that weekend, will be facing the same legal consequences as other offenders, who are not Penn State students. However, since they are alleged violators of Penn State's Code of Conduct, these students now will face additional consequences not applied to those who are not students, as they go through the Judicial Affairs process.

While the majority of these cases represent first-offenders committing minor or moderate offenses, three of the 91 may face suspension from the University, based upon the serious nature of their offenses, in conjunction with prior disciplinary histories.

"Depending on circumstances it's possible that repeat offenders going through the Judicial Affairs process for a more serious violation of University policy could face a suspension, as well as a loss of their residence hall contract or visitation privileges," explained Bill Huston, interim director of Judicial Affairs.

According to Huston, nine students were transported to Mount Nittany Medical Center and treated for alcohol overdose on the State Patty's Day weekend. On that weekend, the 91 students now facing Judicial Affairs action incurred 102 charges, indicating that a few engaged in multiple offenses.

Huston said students who engaged in prohibited underage drinking, public urination, open containers, noise or other relatively minor first offenses (approximately 40 percent of violators) will face sanctions in the range of disciplinary warning to probation and be required to participate in some form of educational activity such as community service, counseling or other developmental enterprise.

"First offenders who engaged in more serious misconduct such as excessive consumption of alcohol, fighting, localized disturbances and DUI will face sanctions in the moderate range from extended disciplinary probation to probation with a notation on the students' official University transcript," Huston said. Approximately 33 percent of the violations fall into this category.

Twenty-two of the students (approximately 24 percent) had prior violations of the Code of Conduct. "That also will be a variable in forming sanctions for misconduct during State Patty’s Day," Huston said. Sanctions for these students will be increased.

Additionally, the Office of Judicial Affairs creates and maintains disciplinary records for any student who is assigned disciplinary charges and sanctioned. The records are released in accordance with University records policy and the Family Education Right to Privacy Act (FERPA) until the third anniversary of a student's graduation.

"Disciplinary records follow students beyond graduation," said Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs. "When students go for jobs, a commonly asked question on employment applications is whether or not there are any arrests or convictions, or if there are disciplinary actions on file from your higher education institution. If all else is equal between two job applicants and one has a disciplinary action on file, that person likely will not be the employer's first choice." In some cases -- such as teacher positions or government information technology jobs which both require background checks or security clearances, an arrest or educational disciplinary notation can immediately disqualify someone from employment.

"Thank God I'm not looking for government work after I graduate so I won't have a deep, thorough background check done on me when I'm out of here. I'll just be a regular computer scientist someplace," said Evan, a Penn State student in his fourth year of a five-year major in computer science. Evan has seen more than his share of trouble rooted in alcohol abuse during his Penn State career. "It definitely got to the point where I was realizing that alcohol was getting in the way of my studies. In fact, I got to know the Judicial Affairs guy on a first-name basis," he said.

Evan didn't experiment with drugs or alcohol in high school, but that changed when he got to college. "I was a regular kid coming out of high school, didn't drink, had a lot of extra-curriculars, things to stay busy, stay out of trouble. When I came to Penn State, I was in just (one activity). It was a large commitment, but still a single commitment. There was plenty of free time, and time to be social. … I started drinking, started running out to the frats. I made some freshmen friends, we traveled out a lot as a group, and it was a lot of fun. It was a social experience."

It wasn't long, though, before he got his first underage citation. "Unhealthy choice. I decided to leave the establishment with an open container in my hand," he explained. "One of the biggest things they can get you for is definitely underage drinking, because you lose your license for three months, and also they boost the amount of points on your license up to one below the maximum -- or at least that's what it was for me. Now I have to pay high prices for car insurance because of the amount of points I have on my license."

Although he got into trouble, it didn't deter Evan from drinking to excess on other occasions. He said his real trouble started once he turned 21 and started going to bars in the summer of 2009. "I got kicked out of a bar downtown. It was happy hour, 10 to midnight, and I was trying to squeeze in the right amount of alcohol for a poor kid in the shortest amount of time. I didn't have a bunch of money and I wanted to throw back drinks as quickly as I could to get the most out of them for the least amount of money and then stop afterward (when drink specials ended)." He doesn't remember anything after that, until he woke up the next morning in his bed, not knowing how he got there. "I'm definitely happy about the fact that you can wake up from a night of heavy drinking and just recover," he said, although he acknowledged that not everyone has been as lucky as he was that night.

Evan stopped to think about the various citations he's racked up due to excessive alcohol consumption. "I had a public urination charge at one point, which is no fun, because of a list that they put you on. I had the underage at one point." Evan also made two ambulance trips to Mount Nittany Medical Center over a three-week period, along with citations for public drunkenness and other charges. "That's when a lot of this started to make me say, 'OK it's time to slow down.'" Over that three-week period Evan accumulated $900 in fines. "That's a lot of money for a college kid. It's a lot of money for my parents to be helping me out with. At least I have a job, but they did need to help me," he said. "Good choice, bad choice? I'm sure we could throw the dart and hit 'bad choice.' To me at the time though, I was thinking in the moment, in the very short-term."

In addition to his interactions with police, Evan also spent quite a bit of time meeting with Judicial Affairs, and has faced a variety of sanctions including disciplinary probation with notations on his transcript, counseling and the writing of reflection papers. Through it all, though, Evan said he found the staff in Judicial Affairs to be very supportive. "People who work there definitely will help you through the system. So I guess there is also -- I don't want to say a 'positive' -- but there is light at the end of the tunnel. There are people who are actually pulling for you, that want you to make it through the academic system."

Although he said the numerous preventative programs and activities, and the sanctions, Penn State has in place likely do help change some people's behavior, Evan said frankly he didn't think anything Penn State or anyone else is doing could have changed his actions or decisions. "I think I'm a very strong-headed, stubborn individual. I very well believe that I am capable of making my own choices and I do so accordingly, which is what got me in trouble in the first place," he said. "My mindset was 'I'm my own person, and I decide when it's time to stop and when it's time to start.' And when I got blacked out, it's the subconscious that took over. So I just kept drinking. I guess I've gotten to the point now where I realize -- and I truly believe it -- that it's something that needs to be slowed down. I mean, am I going to give up drinking? No. But I definitely will do so in moderation. With that in mind I'm more prepared to go out, sit down have a couple drinks and be responsible, and I trust myself to do that now."

After the rough times he's had, Evan believes he's now on the right track. "I think I have gotten (the excessive drinking) out of my system. I started working at a bar downtown. It's interesting now to be on the other side of the fence and actually watch other kids stumbling around the bar and realize how terrible some of the choices are that people can make when they're extremely intoxicated," he said. "Now I'm hanging out around bar staff. It would be very disrespectful of me, I feel, to go down there and cause problems at my workplace, and then come in the next day and expect to get a paycheck and sit down in a booth and laugh and joke with the rest of the guys there, as if nothing ever happened. That's a new twist on things."

From a Judicial Affairs perspective, Huston said, "The dangerous levels of behavior and judgment in which many of our students engage when drinking alcohol compel us to require them to learn from their mistakes and provide consequences designed to deter future high-risk conduct."

Huston explained that the formal consequences and educational interventions Judicial Affairs assigns are designed to hold students accountable, as well as to inspire them to make decisions that put neither themselves nor others in harm's way. He said some students make dramatic changes after a single bad experience, while others continue to engage in dangerous drinking and only after more serious sanctions such as suspension from the University do they become motivated to change.

"We in Judicial Affairs are committed with equal rigor to both challenge and support our students in the enterprise of becoming healthier, safer and overall better citizens," said Huston.

Last Updated October 04, 2010