Concerns over 'extreme drinking' stir Lehigh University's party scene
BETHLEHEM — For a veteran police lieutenant, the thumping music, the red cups and late-night crowds at the house on East Fifth Street in south Bethlehem could mean only one thing.
Lt. Robert Lamana walked up on the porch on a recent Saturday and knocked on the front door, loudly and repeatedly.
A young man on the porch got out his cellphone and called friends inside, telling them, “The cops are here; tell everyone to get out now.”
Behind the two-story house, dozens of young adults began pouring out, groaning at the sight of four officers on the sidewalk. Several fled police by leaping over a porch railing and dashing through yards.
Lamana calmly told the crowd he needed to speak with the person renting the house. A Lehigh University student eventually stepped forward, and Lamana cited him for violating the city's disorderly house ordinance.
It was one of 68 issued last month after Lehigh President John Simon launched increased patrols by campus and city officers after “four close calls” with students who drank so much they were close to death.
Citations for charges including underage drinking, public drunkenness and disorderly house violations surged after Simon took action April 5, according to a review of Northampton County Court records.
During the three months before the stepped-up patrols, police filed 15 alcohol-related citations in January, 21 in February and 35 in March. April's total was a more than four-fold increase over January.
Authorities hope the patrols curb dangerous behavior, but despite the warning from the president, it persists. Four days after Simon added patrols, police arrested a student with a blood-alcohol content of 0.34 percent and sent him to a hospital.
Lehigh officials said excessive student drinking is neither new nor specific to the school, but are particularly concerned about the use of hard liquor. The university has been trying to combat the issue at least since the 1990s, when concerns grew about binge drinking. But today, officials say, students talk a lot about drinking “grain,” which can be anything from grain alcohol to other hard liquors.
Growing more serious
Katherine Lavinder, Lehigh's interim dean of students, said in her 5½ years as Lehigh's on-call contact, this semester is the first she ever fielded calls from a hospital chaplain asking for help to quickly find a student's parents.
“I wouldn't say it's an increase in numbers; it's the high intensity with the health consequences we've experienced this semester,” she said.
Lamana said he thinks the college and police do everything they can to help guide college students when it comes to drinking responsibly — but they need to do the same.
Some students say the “crackdown” could push drinking off campus and away from the rules the university imposes on parties — mostly held at fraternities and sororities.
Recently, students held a meeting and proposed improving alcohol education and holding fraternity chapters accountable for following the rules on serving alcohol so parties can be held on campus, according to the student newspaper the Brown & White.
In an editorial, the paper called the drinking culture “problematic,” noting alcohol-related citations against fraternities throughout the semester. The paper said students haven't acted responsibly enough to expect the school administration to compromise.
“If we don't recognize this reality and act while we still can, it will be a disgrace,” the editorial stated. “There are no more boundaries to push without ending in tragedy.”
A ‘perfect storm'
Lehigh is far from the only school to grapple with drinking issues. After the February death of an intoxicated Penn State student who fell down the stairs during a fraternity pledge night, plus several alcohol-related deaths at other schools, college campuses across the country have taken a hard stance against what was often considered a rite of passage for many students — getting drunk.
Fraternities became the target of administrators at Penn State, where university President Eric Barron wrote April 10 about his concerns over the death of Timothy Piazza. Barron's letter detailed other instances of inappropriate drinking connected to Greek life and said if they continued, “I predict that we will see ... the end of Greek life at Penn State.”
The Centre County district attorney announced criminal charges against 18 Beta Theta Pi brothers and the fraternity in Piazza's death. Charges include involuntary manslaughter and hazing, according to the district attorney's office.
While the Greek system has become a target at Penn State, Lehigh officials told The Morning Call they are not looking to banish it.
But the large number of Lehigh students in fraternities and sororities — more than 40 percent — means any policy on alcohol will affect them because they have the houses that often host parties.
Student groups that want to host parties on Lehigh's campus have to follow complicated and sometimes costly rules. Groups are required to register a party and can serve someone of legal age one drink of alcohol — beer and wine only — per hour for no more than four hours. They must hire at least two security staff and, if the party is outside, hire a contractor to put up a 6-foot-tall temporary fence to keep the party contained.
Nicki Nance, a psychotherapist and assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla., said universities find themselves in a difficult position when it comes to helping students use alcohol safely.
“Promoting the safe use of alcohol is promoting the use of alcohol,” she said. “Not addressing the issue at all is negligent, and promoting abstinence is unrealistic.”
Nance considers colleges the “perfect storm” for drinking problems.
“It is the combination of students being near drinking age, being away from parents, having the availability of alcohol and plenty of like-minded allies,” she said.
While Simon's letter warned Lehigh students of the dangers of excessive drinking and of the additional police patrols, officials hope a more permanent solution will involve sharing the responsibility for safety with students.
Police crackdowns aren't a new solution to the age-old drinking issue. In fall 1999, city police cited dozens of students attempting to leave campus and enter city neighborhoods in an attempt to avoid policies designed to reduce binge drinking on campus, according to Morning Call archives.
The school continued to try to tackle student alcohol use and from 2011 to 2013, it was involved in the National College Health Improvement Project. Some initiatives included addressing dangerous hard-alcohol use and developing alternative, alcohol-free social events called Lehigh After Dark.
“It is an area we're not going to necessarily solve completely, but at any given time we're hoping it will mitigate and reduce the harm that could happen as a result of extreme drinking,” said Lori Friedman, a Lehigh spokeswoman.
At the same time, Lehigh is reviewing its social policy, as recommended by a commission of students, faculty, staff and administrators in a 2015 report. It called for some of the party restrictions to be less costly and Greek-focused so parties can occur more often on campus. The commission said students could be safer if more alcohol-related events were held on campus, but said the legal drinking age presents a challenge.
Lehigh police Chief Edward Shupp said he prefers that students drink on campus rather than in off-campus homes.
“I think south Bethlehem is a safe environment, but if students stayed on campus, it would mean less vehicle traffic, less issues with pedestrians walking around,” Shupp said. “Plus, we have the patrols and technology, including 152 cameras, to make sure students are safe.”
Shupp said he sends an email each year to each incoming freshman letting them know how to be a good neighbor in Bethlehem, how to have a safe party and all the resources available to them.
“We do everything we possibly can to educate them,” Shupp said. “The rest is up to them.”