Troubling statistics in Penn report on alcohol and drug use

A University of Pennsylvania commission established a little over a year ago to review alcohol and drug use on campus had little to offer in the way of recommendations in its report issued Tuesday, but quite a lot of stark data about conditions at the Ivy League school.

Perhaps one of the most concerning though is this: Fifty-eight percent of Penn undergraduates consistently report feeling overwhelmed “often or very often” and only seven percent report that such feelings are “rare.”

Here’s the kicker: In a pilot study, 39 percent of students said they use alcohol or other recreational drugs to combat stress.

Freshmen appear to be particularly at risk.

The overall percentage of Penn freshmen who reported on a college survey that they have engaged in high-risk and chronic drinking more than doubled between the time they entered college and six weeks later.

Nearly a quarter reported high risk drinking and nine percent chronic drinking.

“That’s a serious concern for us,” said Joann Mitchell, Penn’s vice president for institutional affairs and vice chair of the commission. “There are certain periods of time when we need to be particularly vigilant.”

The university is working on how to target education and help to students when they are the most vulnerable, she said.

In terms of official recommendations, however, the commission offered only three in its eight-page report: Hire someone to educate students on safety, especially in the areas of preventing violence and hazing as they relate to drug and alcohol use. Conduct “periodic assessments” of policies and programs in place. Continue to “create, promote, and refine” efforts to prevent the misuse of alcohol and drugs and its consequences, such as sexual assault.

The report, Mitchell said, included so few recommendations because the commission found that the university already has a strong system of programs and policies and because the group did not include steps already underway that had been identified over the last year as the commission did its work.

“Just announcing the commission sort of increased awareness and conversation about what’s already in place and what can we do more effectively,” she said.

For example, Penn noted in the report that it is working on a pilot study to collect and analyze blood alcohol levels of students brought in to the university’s hospital for alcohol or drug use. The university will look for trends or issues that need to be addressed, she said. That came about as a result of the commission’s work, but was not reflected in an official recommendation.

“The pilot will include an analysis of other relevant information and circumstances including any injuries, repeat emergency department visits, necessary medical treatment and any physical or sexual assaults,” the report said.

In addressing the statistic that 58 percent of Penn undergraduates report feeling overwhelmed, she noted that the result is on par with results at 31 peer schools. And as for the pilot study that showed 39 percent use alcohol or drugs to relieve stress? She said it was based on a small number of students.

But Mitchell acknowledged that the statistics in the report overall are cause for concern and said Penn will strive to do better to help students who have drug and alcohol issues.

“Penn hasn’t been exempt from the challenges faced by colleges and universities across the country,” she said. “But being consistent with national trends and average is not good enough. We’ve got to be better than that.”

In addition to Mitchell, others on the commission were: Chair Charles O’Brien, vice chair of the department of psychiatry and founding director of the Center for Studies of Addiction in the Perelman School of Medicine; Andrew Binns, vice provost for education; Dennis DeTurck, dean of the college; Swain-Cade McCoullum, vice provost for university life; Maureen Rush, vice president for public safety; Wendy White, senior vice president and general counsel; and Julie Lyzinski Nettleton, director of the office of alcohol and other drug program initiatives.

Another 45 students, faculty and staffers participated in commission working groups, and outside experts also were consulted, Mitchell said.

When Penn established the commission, officials said it wasn’t in response or in reaction to anything on campus, but rather a desire to address a national problem from which Penn is not exempt.

"Nationally, there have been a disturbing number of recent incidents where excessive alcohol consumption led to tragic consequences," president Amy Gutmann said in a statement at the time. "No campus - indeed, no sector of American society - is immune from these problems."

The month before, however, attorneys had announced that the parents of a student, 20, who fell to his death after a 2010 fraternity party at Penn would receive more than $3 million from the fraternity and a beer distributor in a wrongful-death settlement. David and Helene Crozier of Yardley also reached a pact with Penn, but its terms were confidential, officials said.

The couple's son, Matthew, a La Salle College High School graduate and junior at John Carroll University near Cleveland, suffered severe head injuries after a 30-foot fall over a railing at the Phi Kappa Sigma house. He was at the party with friends and was intoxicated, the lawsuit said. The fraternity is no longer active on campus.

The commission’s report also noted that:

* Between August 15, 2011 and May 14, 2013, 518 students had “interactions” with the Division of Public Safety for alcohol-related behavior. And there were academic consequences. The grade-point averages of those students were 0.10 to 0.15 (on a 4.0 scale) below those of their peers.

Mitchell said the university plans to be more proactive in educating students about that link in hopes that it will deter the behavior.

* In 2012-13, the university notified the parents of 36 students that their child had been transported to the hospital for drug or alcohol use. The university notifies parents if students are under age 18 or if they are transported more than once.

* Penn has a medical amnesty policy for students who seek medical treatment for themselves or other students as a result of alcohol or drugs; it means they won’t face disciplinary sanctions for that use of alcohol or drugs. Between July 2011 and June 2013, 449 students benefitted from the amnesty policy, the university said. They include: 247 freshmen, 88 sophomores, 43 seniors, 22 graduate/professional students and 8 others.

* Before arriving at Penn, none of the students who responded to a survey reported experiencing unwanted sexual intercourse as a result of drinking. Six weeks later, five percent said they had experienced unwanted sexual touching and one percent said they had “high-risk, unprotected sex.”

* Two percent of students reported taking advantage of someone sexually as a result of alcohol or drugs.

* Here’s another stat that sheds light on the “overwhelming” feelings that some students report. Ninety-six percent of Penn students said in a survey that they found the university “competitive,” 71 percent reported spending 11 to 25 hours per week in class, 67 percent said they spent 11 to 30 hours per week studying, and 68 percent spent one to 10 hours per week engaged in extracurricular activities. More than 50 percent reported working for pay.