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State Patty’s Day: On Life Support?

end_state_pattyHere we are again. We’re getting ready to turn the calendar from February to March which to me has meant two (very different) things since 2007: THON and State Patty’s Day. I find it ironic that we see the absolute BEST from the Penn State student body a mere seven days before we arguably see it at its worst. It’s also unfortunate that the two events are often mentioned in the same breath because of where they fall on the calendar. If last year’s State Patty’s is any indication, that will change in the years ahead.

I’m fairly sure that I’ve worked on an ambulance in State College on every State Patty’s Day since the event’s inception back in’07. Truthfully, they all have sort of blended together in green blur accentuated with the aromas of bottom shelf liquor, Natty, partially digested Canyon pizza, and regrets. 2014 will be no different; I’ll be working along with many other dedicated professionals who are trying help keep students and our community safe and healthy.

As one could guess, I’m opposed to the daylong debauchery. I could lob a number statistics at you that support my stance against the holiday, but a quick google search of old news articles & press releases will fetch them just as easily. If you care enough to read this, you’re probably already familiar with the numbers anyway. Many Centre Region EMS providers, police officers, dispatchers, and hospital staff have lived these statistics for the past 7 years. Every year, even in the nuclear winter following “The Scandal”, this issue comes up for debate.

Here is what I’ll concede to the “green everywhere” crowd:

1. The vast majority of individual SPD party goers do not cause disorder, destruction, dismemberment, or death.

2. A significant contributor to the problems I’ve seen are from out of town visitors, not just Penn State students themselves.

3. Simply asking (and offering cash money) for the local bars to close alone will not put this thing to bed.

Here is what I know this day does to this community, because I’ve seen it happen year after year:

1. Harms the health and well-being of Penn State students and their guests.

2. Places a significant strain on the public health and safety resources available to respond to emergencies within the Centre Region (and in its worst years throughout all of Centre County).

3. Places a significant strain and undue burden on the staff at our local emergency room.

4. Causes the local public health and safety agencies to consume significant financial resources to increase staffing to account for the drastic increase in call volume.

5. Harms the reputation of our community and Penn Staters everywhere.

6. Causes an undesired rift in town/gown relations. (The University/Community SPD Task Force has overcome this)

Every year, I see the same sort of ideas and criticisms floated. Last week, Jay Paterno, a man whom I have enormous respect and admiration for, penned a column suggesting that the day be transformed in some way to fundraising event. A noble thought Jay, but one that simply will not happen. I feel confident in saying that the University and the local government would not/could not/should not ever get behind a formal event where alcohol was still the dominant term of the equation.

I also read an Onward State piece last week in which a local defense attorney was critical of the negative financial impact and ‘wasted money’ of bar closures. I confess, I laughed out loud at the irony of this one while reading it. He also asserted that those who have had too much to drink are cutoff and thrown out, which is true. As responsible as many of the local tavern owners are, it’s impossible to effectively monitor all patrons in a packed bar. If you don’t believe that visibly intoxicated persons routinely get served in State College establishments (even through no fault of the employees working there), I’ve get some beachfront in Arizona to sell you, counselor.

And even columnist Patty Kleban “didn’t get it” in her column this week. Let me be clear on this point: The tavern owners’ decision to close last year made an enormous positive impact on working towards killing this event. Seeing these business owners work so fluidly with our leaders on working to solve this problem is a wonderful thing. No, it did not eliminate all of the problems. And yes, people can (and did) still drink excessively elsewhere. I found that we were heading out to apartment complexes and business away from downtown more than we had in the years past.

But here is where the closings made the most impact: It took the energy and revelry out of downtown. Call it an intangible if you want, but like Beaver Stadium on gameday, downtown State College has a palpable energy level, especially at night on the weekends. Smothering that downtown campfire with a wet and very uncool blanket was a total buzzkill, and a real game changer last year. What is the fun of wandering the streets of down blitzed with your pals if there are no watering holes to hit? What’s the sense of your bros from Slippery Rock, Bloomsburg, The Haven, Pitt (gag), or Temple (ouch) romping around town when there’s nowhere to romp to (save for some lame party in a cramped, crappy apartment)? Hardly worth the gas money or Megabus ticket, my friend.

What many folks really “don’t get” is that SPD is unlike a football weekend or even Arts Fest. The event dynamics are flat out different. With football games and Arts Fest, the focus is not solely on excessive (binge) drinking. Many other events on those days with long breaks in the booze are happening. On SPD, the perfect storm of a relatively high number of students looking to take a load off post-THON and pre-Spring Break, plus having friends from other colleges visit, plus going hard from the early morning hours, plus no break in the continuous alcohol consumption, minus all of the extra out of town health & safety resources that are present (and well-funded) for football games comes together for a trainwreck of a day. This a different and more dangerous beast than what we are used to dealing with.

I help teach the EMT course at both on campus and at the local ambulance service, and every semester around this week I give the students my anti- State Patty’s spiel. Last night at class, a number of students were dragging, many in various stages of recovery from 46 straight hours of sticking it to pediatric cancer. But most perked up when the subject of SPD was discussed. This is where I really felt the tide turn over years past. Many laughed it off, and thought the whole idea of SPD was completely lame. Most indicated they would go about business as usual on Friday and/or Saturday night and have their usual choice adult beverages in various degrees of moderation. They indicated there was NO appeal to dressing up in green and parading around town acting like a fool in the middle of the day Saturday. These responses were quite different than the ones I had in this class just 3 or 4 years ago.

Ultimately, like most things life, this comes down to making simple choices and taking a measure of personal responsibility. If students really want this circus to continue and desire that badly to extend a proverbial middle finger to the Penn State administration and local government officials, they will. Never underestimate the will and spirit of youth. And no, asking responsible business owners to close shop on this day is neither a sustainable, nor appropriate long term solution. But if students can recognize what a problem this day has become for local health & safety agencies and our town/gown community, they can make the choice as an individual to dial it way down.

Kevin Horne of Onward State closed his 2013 SPD postmortem (which showed all the downward trends in crime & alcohol numbers) with: “I don’t think anyone knows for sure, but right now, it’s easy to get excited at the prospect of a safer — or non-existent — State Patty’s Day.” With that mindset, and another friendly push in the right direction, this thing will die off.

Note: These are my personal views and do not reflect the official positions of any of my employers or the agencies mentioned.

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