May 17, 2006

Police and health officials say Slope Day has improved overall, but pre-partying has increased

Slope Day 2006, the annual last-day-of-classes celebration for Cornell students, came and went without serious incident on May 5, but with an increase over previous years in the number of arrests and cases of alcohol poisoning.

"There are many, many things that went really well this year, and overall the crowd was a very happy crowd," said Capt. Kathy Zoner, assistant director of Cornell University Police. "Generally and overall they stuck to the rules and the general mores of decency. We did have a problem with alcohol poisoning; more than we did last year. It doesn't seem to be on the slope; people pre-partied and were intoxicated already, getting to the slope."

Timothy Marchell of Gannett Health Services at Cornell noted that, overall, the level of problems at the event have decreased significantly since the university began allowing students to hold a concert at the base of the slope and limiting alcohol to sales of beer to those age 21 and over.

A total of 35 students were treated for alcohol poisoning on May 5, along with 17 others treated for miscellaneous injuries, most of them resulting from falls, such as twisted ankles and cuts.

Those numbers, for an estimated crowd of 12,500, are up from the 2005 event, when 15,000 people came to see Snoop Dogg perform and 23 students were treated for alcohol poisoning (the same number as treated in 2004) and 12 for injuries. In 2003 and 2004, the crowds were smaller, 7,000 and 10,000 people respectively, Marchell said.

Meanwhile, Slope Fest on Ho Plaza offered diversions such as carnival games, free Rockin' the Slope ice cream, food vendors, Class Council giveaways and activities such as the Minority Greek Letter Council's Stroll Exhibition. Alcohol-free alternative events have been an annual part of Slope Day since 2004.

"What we have consistently found this year and in previous years is that most of the cases of alcohol poisoning have involved excessive drinking before the event and almost always involve hard alcohol," Marchell said. "The challenge is when students are drinking in off-campus apartments. It's very hard to regulate that."

Gannett's annual survey conducted anonymously on Slope Day suggests that in 2005 there was a decrease in self-reported heavy drinking that corresponded with fewer cases of alcohol poisoning (2006 data is not yet available). The results also have shown that "the overall level of drinking before the event has increased, but the percentage of first-year students who drink on Slope Day has decreased since the format of the event changed in 2003," Marchell said.

Alcohol sales at Slope Day were tightened this year to discourage overconsumption and curtail underage drinking. Students were able to purchase only one beer on each pass through the service area, versus two in past years. This change was made as "a result of the observation of a large number of students passing the second beer to an underage person," said Peggy Beach, director of campus relations.

Libe Slope was encircled by a chain-link fence, concertgoers had their IDs checked at all five entry gates, and wristbands were required to purchase alcohol -- all measures in place since 2003. This year, a quarter-mile, zigzag queue for beer service was set up with fencing, to keep the line orderly and to allow for efficient service, Beach said.

Around 4 p.m., gate workers reported that some people just released from Gannett after treatment for alcohol-related illness were attempting to return to the beer line, and event volunteers were advised to deny them service.

University Police referred 30 student cases on Slope Day to Cornell's judicial administrator, and six Ithaca City Court appearance tickets were issued.

"The majority of the arrests are split between underage alcohol possession, drug possession, criminal mischief and forged IDs," Zoner said. The city charges included resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, she said.

"We're seeing a spike of numbers over the last years showing that the pre-partying and post-partying are significant problems we're faced with as a community," Zoner said. "And it's a huge struggle. We're seeing a lack of responsible behavior among some students, and some of them are more combative. We want everyone to celebrate and have a good time, but it's tough."

There were eight judicial referrals in 2005, mostly for underage possession, and one City Court case, she said. In 2004, there were 21 referrals, mostly for forged IDs, and no city cases.

"We rely on support from SUNY Police, Ithaca Police, Cayuga Security and volunteers to try to serve the event while balancing the needs of the community outside the slope," Zoner said. "We were able to attend to the issues, but I wouldn't say that we are comfortable with our staffing levels. We would like to cover neighborhoods a little bit better and provide some more support to the Gannett health clinic."

Before Slope Day gates opened at noon, Cornell and Ithaca city police conducted joint patrols of nearby fraternity neighborhoods and university police visited residence halls on campus.

"Problems started in the fraternities at 8:15 in the morning," Zoner said. Police responded to a handful of alcohol-related calls at fraternities on University Avenue and McGraw Place before 11 a.m., and to a report of criminal mischief in one of the North Campus residence halls.

Zoner praised the 745 Slope Day volunteers -- back to the numbers of several years ago. "The gates ran better than ever, and the volunteer tent and beer service ran better than ever."