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Plainclothes troopers crash Shippensburg students' parties

The Patriot News | May 4, 2005

SHIPPENSBURG - It's 10 p.m. on a recent Friday in Shippensburg when Shawn Wolfe and Jeffrey D'Alessandro meet up in a car-wash parking lot, close to all the town's hot spots.

Two doors down the street, things are starting to heat up at Wibs Bar, a Shippensburg University student hangout.

Around the corner is fraternity row. In the other direction is Richard Avenue, a popular destination for drinking in a non-Greek environment.

Wolfe and D'Alessandro are in the right place. They are two guys looking for action, and this is action central.

The pair has been spending a lot of weekends in Shippensburg the last few months.

Young, sharply dressed -- in different circumstances they would be popular guys.

But Wolfe and D'Alessandro are not the life of the party.

They work for the state police.

Troopers have been patrolling the area for months as part of a crackdown on underage drinking.

Never far from their reach is a portable Breathalyzer and a sack of disposable mouthpieces, used to test blood-alcohol content.

State police cited 21 people on charges of underage drinking in Shippensburg during that recent weekend. Students and their out-of-town friends accounted for most of the citations. That brings the number of students cited on the charge this school year to just under 700. Twenty-five or so underage students have been charged with driving under the influence, according to District Judge Harold Bender.

Things definitely have changed on Richard Avenue since the state police started patrolling last fall.

"At this time of the year last year, there would be kids all over the street," said Tim McLaughlin, a 21-year-old from Levittown who lives in one of the wood-frame homes on Richard Avenue that have been converted to student housing.

Sometimes people even tapped kegs in the middle of the street. Not anymore. Drinking games on Richard Avenue are indoor sports these days. Even 21-year-olds hesitate to drink outdoors.

"We drive slowly down the street, and everybody on the porches gets up and goes inside," D'Alessandro said with half a laugh.

Cracking down:

As part of the crackdown, undercover officers roam the streets in search of underage drinkers. During homecoming weekend last fall, state police used horseback patrols to catch drinkers sneaking out the back door of parties.

At the beginning of the school year, state police Sgt. Steve Junkin laid down the law. A letter went to every student-housing unit in town, explaining what would and would not be tolerated.

For years, Junkin said, residents and local officials took a hands-off approach. Kids will be kids, they reasoned. That attitude emboldened students. Indoor parties began spilling outside. They grew louder. They lasted longer, sometimes almost until dawn.

Conduct worsened, too. Public urination, vandalism and fights; couches set on fire in the middle of the street. Residents reached their breaking point.

"We had to do something to get some order back," said Junkin, who is coordinating the crackdown.

Some students think it's the police who are out of hand.

"They just want to bust the college students," said Veronica Weyandt, 21, a political science major from the Reading area who was cited on a charge of underage drinking in October. "The cops really don't like us."

Not so, Junkin insists.

"If they are quiet about it, we won't actively seek them out. If they bring attention to themselves, and they are found to have broken the law, they get cited," Junkin said.

"A lot of people feel their rights have been infringed upon," said Toni Marchowsky, a 21-year-old senior from Minersville, Schuylkill County.

Marchowsky, the Student Senate treasurer, said a friend, over 21, was stopped while walking home from work. The girl had not been drinking, he said. Another time, Marchowsky said, he was with people, all over 21, who were stopped by police as they walked home from a bar.

"I guess the reason to suspect you is because this is a college town and you are a college student," Student Senate President Tom Dunn said. "It's like the Patriot Act of drinking."

State police say they do not make random stops but that someone doesn't have to be falling-down drunk to arouse suspicion.

"A lot of them bring attention to themselves with their actions," Judge Bender said, such as walking outside with an open bottle of beer, urinating in public, banging on street signs, shouting obscenities or otherwise causing a disturbance.

Cody Hassler and Michael Mitchell came face to face with the police on a Friday night. They were in a car full of people that pulled into the College Park Apartments parking lot a moment before D'Alessandro and Wolfe drove by.

The number of people in the hatchback caught the troopers' attention. "There were too many people. They even had people in back in the cargo area," D'Alessandro recalled.

As they piled out of the car, most of the passengers walked into the building. But three of them stayed near the car, out of the light.

"We gave them a chance to go ahead and move on," D'Alessandro said. "When they did not, I got out to investigate a little further." He said he smelled alcohol and noticed glassy, bloodshot eyes.

The three proclaimed their innocence. But only the driver blew a zero on the Breathalyzer.

The officers handed citations to Hassler and Mitchell. If found guilty, they could face fines and a 60-day suspension of their driving privileges.

Is the crackdown working?:

Shippensburg residents tell Junkin that town life is better than it has been in the last 10 years. To him, that means the crackdown is working.

And Shippensburg's Greek community keeps parties inside and under control. They got the message, he said.

"They don't want to get raided," Junkin said.

Donna Gross, an associate dean who runs Shippensburg's programs for assisting students with drug and alcohol problems, said she has seen fewer referrals in the second semester.

A less optimistic measuring stick is the recidivism rate. Bender, the district judge, said 20 percent to 25 percent of the underage cases he handles repeat the offense.

"I got my underage [citation], and I kept drinking until I was 21," Weyandt said. "It doesn't stop anybody."

The outrageous behavior has been tamed. The drinking has moved indoors. But the booze still flows.

"You can't enforce your way out of the problem," said Steven L. Schmidt, head of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's Bureau of Alcohol Education.

It takes multiple strategies, an arsenal of weapons. It also takes time.

University officials point out that they are not relying solely on enforcement.

The school's anti-drinking effort starts with sessions for students and parents during orientation. Half of the 90-minute program reviews the perils of drinking, from health consequences to bad grades. The second half features a panel of law-enforcement personnel talking about the legal consequences of underage drinking.

"We believe very strongly in accountability," said Peter Gigliotti, Shippensburg's communications director. "The president has been very clear. We have a zero-tolerance policy. If you make a bad decision and you violate the law, you will accept the consequences."

Those consequences include participation in Shippensburg's Connection Program. Connection participants take part in an eight-hour alcohol-education course. Some participate in an early intervention group. Those deemed to have more serious alcohol problems -- about 5 percent -- end up in treatment.

"There is no single bullet," Gross said.

Alcohol-free choices:

"Shippensburg is the worst place on earth. We get retarded because there is nothing else to do around here," insisted Brian Zimmerman, 21, a beer in hand in front of a Richard Avenue house on a Friday night.

"There's nothing you can do for three bucks that is more fun," one of Zimmerman's buddies chimed in.

The school is looking to add more late-night weekend activities on campus to give students nondrinking choices.

The results of those efforts have been mixed.

On this Friday night, a midnight movie in the Cumberland Union Building draws fewer than a dozen viewers. Downstairs in the lounge adjacent to the coffee bar, two youths check their e-mail while a couple sit at a table sipping drinks and talking.

One of those is Brook Howard, the student running the place. It is a slow night. Some nights they have live music in the lounge. That doesn't guarantee a crowd. The previous week, a band from Reading drew about 15 people. "And they were really good," Howard said.

How well nonalcoholic events on campus draw varies widely. About 1,500 freshmen played bingo the first week of school, but once they found parties, the crowd dwindled.

"We do have a greater number of students that are attending weekend programs," Gross said. "When we started, we were getting 30, 40, maybe 50 kids. Now some draw 100, 200, even 400, depending on the program."

Change won't come overnight.

"It really is going to be inch by inch," Schmidt said.

The problem can't be corrected overnight, said Henry Wechsler, who led the Harvard School of Public Health's landmark College Alcohol Study. "Most colleges are trying to do something, but we haven't successfully proven many methods that work."

Junkin figures it will take at least four years to measure the effectiveness of the enforcement crackdown. When this year's freshmen are seniors, there will be nobody around who remembers what it was like in the wild old days.

"By then, the seniors will be telling the freshmen that the bad behavior is unacceptable because it will get them all in trouble," Junkin said.

Even then, though, accomplishments will be measured more by containment than by absolute abstinence. Better behavior, fewer problems, fewer kids so drunk they need to go to the hospital. Ultimately, that is how success will be defined.

"Realistically, are we going to stop these kids from drinking under age?" Junkin asked. "No, we are not."

 

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