Excessive Drinking on College Campuses And Failure to Seek Medical Help Is A Problem

The recent death of Timothy Piazza has put underage drinking and excessive consumption of alcohol on college campuses into the spotlight again. The overconsumption of alcohol at Penn State is not a Greek Life problem, it is a university dilemma that is getting worse because it is not being addressed. I represent a lot of Penn Student and their friends that get arrested for Underage Drinking or Public Drunkenness, and many of those students had attended parties at apartments in State College or in dorms on campus. I am routinely seeing blood alcohol levels that are 3 and even 4 times the legal limit. In many of those cases, the clients were actually found passed out by the police.

Sadly, it took Timothy Piazza’s death to push the excessive drinking issue into the spotlight. How many people were aware that in the fall of 2016, a student from the University of Massachusetts visited Happy Valley, engaged in the culture of partying with Penn State students, spent the weekend attending parties with friends, and ultimately the young man passed out in a downtown alley in State College. A Good Samaritan saw the young man and called 911. The young man was transported to the Mount Nittany Medical Center, and he had to be placed on a ventilator in the Intensive Care Unit after he stopped breathing. His blood alcohol level was a .49%. Fortunately for the student, he received great medical care and is expected to make a full recovery.

Penn State Excessive Drinking Culture

Sadly, very few people have heard about this near fatality due to excessive drinking. How does a near death not find its way into an article in the Centre Daily Times, Onward State, or StateCollege.com? Why would a near travesty not get some attention and thereby be an impetus for change? Instead, it takes a fatality in Tim Piazza’s case to get anyone’s attention and thereby be an impetus for change. While the Piazza tragedy has brought attention to the amount of alcohol that is consumed by Penn State students, the blame game is running rampant, and the focus is too narrow as the ire of the nation is on excessive consumption in fraternities and sororities. Excessive consumption alcohol and students’ reluctance to seek medical help is campus wide and not limited to Greek Life.

How prevalent is the problem of alcohol poisoning? I have talked to many officers in State College and at Penn State who find students that are passed out on benches, sidewalks, curbs, and sometimes even lying in the streets on a routine basis on weekends. I often represent client charged with Public Drunkenness that have blood alcohol levels above .20%, and some have even been over .30%. When the police find someone passed out on the street, there are often other students and onlookers taking photos and mocking the person instead of calling 911. While not every passerby snaps photos, many people do simply walk by and fail to call 911 and seek medical assistance because they are afraid of getting into trouble themselves for underage drinking or public drunkenness.

Limitations of Good Samaritan Law

In the Piazza case, many people also question why no one called 911 right away. Many people assume that Pennsylvania has a Good Samaritan law that would promote human life above low level Underage Drinking charges. The problem is that people assume that the protections are expansive and are interpreted or applied to promote health and safety. While Pennsylvania does have a Good Samaritan law, it has many limitations. First, the Good Samaritan law only protects the caller from prosecution and does not protect the person that needs medical assistance. Therefore, the caller knows that a call to 911 means that his or her friend is likely going to be cited for Underage Drinking and Public Drunkenness. The friend is going to be referred to the Penn State Office of Student Conduct, and violations of the Code of Conduct will be filed and sanctions will be imposed. The friend is going to get a bill from the ambulance company and emergency room that can run from $500.00 to $1,000.00.

Imagine a young person that is intoxicated contemplating whether or not to call for medical assistance and processing these factors. Factors like this are why young people do not immediately summon medical assistance. I am not saying that the cost-benefit analysis is not always in favor of life. My point is that a young, drunk person is making this decision. It is easy for sober adults to second guess the decision after the fact. People should refrain from judging the young adults until he or she has walked a mile in the young person’s shoes.

Failure of Good Samaritan Policy at Penn State

I recently represented a Penn State student that got to experience first hand that the Good Samaritan law does not work as people expect. I recently had a client that returned to her dorm room after a night of drinking and found her roommate vomiting. The client thought that the roommate was vomiting blood, but it was really only the Hawaiian punch and vodka that had been consumed earlier. The client sought assistance from a resident assistant (RA) in the dorm, and upon client’s request, the RA called 911. The Penn State police accompanied the ambulance personnel, and both my client and her roommate received citations for Underage Drinking, and both my client and her roommate were referred to the Penn State Office of Student Conduct for the drinking incident. My client admittedly was wrong for drinking while being underage, so she broke the law.

But I thought that the Good Samaritan law was supposed to protect her and shield her from prosecution? Ultimately, I was able to convince a judge to dismiss the criminal Underage Drinking charge, so the client was not convicted, and we are able to expunge the dismissed charge. By doing the right thing and calling for help, my client reaped the benefit of a criminal charge. Also, the client had the joy of residing with a roommate that was angry that my client sought medical assistance because the roommate was charge with a criminal offense, was sanctioned by Penn State, and had a large medical bill to pay. The roommate was angry because she felt that my client had overreacted byseeking help. While my client knows that she did the right thing by seeking help and calling 911, it hardly feels like she did the right thing. Had my client not done the right thing and sought help, there could have been another tragedy at Penn State. If my client could turn back time, I wonder if the “benefits” and protections that she received would cause her to make a different decision.

Stop Blaming Others – Change is Needed

I want to be clear that I am not blaming the police for enforcing the law, blaming Student Conduct for applying their rules, or blaming the hospital or ambulance company for billing for services rendered. The police and Student Conduct are doing their jobs and following the rules. The emergency personnel are performing life-saving work and should be compensated accordingly. My argument is that the system, meaning the laws and procedures, need to be changed. The Good Samaritan law should be revised and expanded to offer greater protections. The police and courts should be encouraged by local prosecutors to liberally construe or interpret the law to encourage requests for medical assistance. Students need to be provided more information about the law and the negative consequences that stem from excessive drinking, andstudents should be told about what can happen if they do not call for medical assistance. A few years ago a freshman died after consuming too much alcohol and falling. Another Penn State student fell 7 stories out of an apartment window after consuming too much alcohol. Those cases hit the headlines. Surprisingly, a near death this fall did not.