In Towson, Maryland, community volunteers worked with one of the largest universities in the state to reduce excessive drinking among college students. Plagued by loud, unruly parties around Towson University, community members urged the Baltimore County Council to adopt a social host ordinance, which enabled law enforcement to issue fines to landlords and party hosts when police received complaints about a rowdy party. During the 2015-2016 school year, when the social host ordinance first went into effect, there were 71 citations issued to students by the Baltimore County Police Department and 59 complaint calls received by Towson University from nearby residents. Each year that number has been cut in half, and was down to 19 citations issued in 2017-2018. Here, Paul Hartman of Towson Communities Alliance shares his experience.
Why is it important to you to address underage and excessive drinking?
Paul: There are many single family homes near the university that have been converted into student rentals. Many neighbors have been bothered by loud parties late into the night and early morning, and they have endured trash-strewn streets, vandalism, public urination and other acts that degrade their quality of life. Some neighborhoods were in danger of becoming majority rental units as residents began moving out due to nuisances.
What are some of the changes you feel have had the greatest impact on reducing excessive alcohol consumption in the Towson area?
The social host ordinance has reduced the number of unruly parties which contribute to binge drinking. Students and landlords do not want to receive a fine or citation from law enforcement and so the social host ordinance really is a deterrent to students throwing these large parties. Additionally, Towson University has done a great job of trying to educate students about the new ordinance and the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.
How did you find people to work with? How did you find partners in your neighborhood, at nearby universities, and within government?
Finding neighbors was easy, because we are in regular communication with each other through community associations. The Maryland Collaborative connected us with residents near other universities. Having worked with elected officials on other issues helped us when proposing the social host ordinance legislation. Law enforcement was also very helpful; the officers are tired of having to respond to late-night events with lots of drunken party-goers.
How have you engaged with alcohol retailers?
We haven’t really done that yet. Perhaps we will as we work on a policy that requires alcohol servers at bars and restaurants to be trained in how to avoid serving alcohol to underage or intoxicated patrons.
What has surprised you about this work? What did you learn about how your community functions?
I realized that people who live farther away from the university and don’t see the off-campus problems on a regular basis, or even at all, are much more willing to label excessive drinking as students “just having too much fun.” They don’t see it as being harmful to both the students and the community. Photos and videos can be very effective to win over the skeptics.
What kind of challenges did you encounter and what did you do to overcome them?
The association representing apartment complexes was opposed to the initial social host ordinance bill. As a compromise, we exempted buildings with more than six units, restricted the geographic area covered by the bill, and made the first offense for a landlord generate a warning rather than a fine. The association ended up testifying in favor of the bill.
What did you do or say to recruit people to your cause?
Community members who have been bothered repeatedly by noise and other issues were willing to help once they saw a way to solve the problem.
Has this effort affected your sense of community?
After working on zoning, development and other community issues for 20 years, the social host ordinance was just another way to make the neighborhoods stronger and more stable.
How has this effort fit within the larger goals within the community, both on and off campus?
It’s part of an effort to mitigate the effects of Towson University’s rapid growth. It helps improve relations between the neighborhood community and the University. It improves the quality of life in the neighborhood and decreases tensions residents might have with the university. We see it as a win-win for both the community and the university.
How does this work affect students?
We believe the social host ordinance is at least partly responsible for the reduction in the number of citations the Baltimore County Police Department issues to students. Citations have decreased 73% from 2015 to 2017. The complaints that Towson University received from nearby residents since the social host ordinance law went into effect also decreased 73% from 59 in 2015 to 16 in 2017. Research has shown that drinking hasn’t increased in the dormitories, so we know that alcohol consumption hasn’t just shifted from off-campus parties to on-campus ones. So, we believe the ordinance has helped reduce excessive college drinking which can lead to harmful outcomes for students.
How has your community changed since you implemented the new policies/practices?
People are more willing to tackle the next issue because they realize that “the system” can work to their benefit when the community takes action together.