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College’s staff tries to curb ‘penny pints’ binges

Although officials often boast about the University of Maryland's growing stature as an academic powerhouse, they also cringe at its reputation as a place where students party hard and engage in postgame riots.
The Cornerstone Grill and Loft in College Park, Md., where some University of Maryland faculty members organized a silent protest Saturday night.
The Cornerstone Grill and Loft in College Park, Md., where some University of Maryland faculty members organized a silent protest Saturday night.Lois Raimondo / Washington Post
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The advertisement in the University of Maryland's student newspaper, the Diamondback, mortified Heidi Biffl.

Next to the horoscopes, the Cornerstone Grill and Loft in College Park announced a "Ladies Lockdown." From 9 to 11 p.m. Saturday, only women would be admitted and allowed to drink "penny pints" -- essentially for free -- before men could enter at 11 for $2.50 drafts and vodkas.

"It's for us to thank our customers for supporting us," owner Mark Srour said.

But Biffl, housing coordinator for the university's Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, said such events encourage binge drinking and put women in danger of sexual assault. Biffl decided to recruit administrative colleagues to monitor what happened at the Cornerstone, a popular bar at Baltimore Avenue and Knox Road.

"We just decided we were going to take up the space of a few of our more vulnerable students," Biffl said.

Growing effort
The group visit was an informal example of the university's larger effort to curb binge drinking. Although officials often boast about the school's growing stature as an academic powerhouse, they also cringe at its reputation as a place where students party hard and engage in postgame riots.

On Saturday night, eight female university staff members went on a mission to keep watch over a bar full of young women who guzzled beer, some through a funnel held by young men in yellow T-shirts that labeled them as security staff. Over three hours, the older women grew increasingly uncomfortable with what they saw and eventually left, disappointed that their presence had not curbed the drinking.

Calling it a "concerned women's mixer," Biffl, a 42-year-old mother of two, spread the word about her effort over listservs last week. Donations to pay for the $5 cover charge poured in. "I'm not trying to kill anyone's fun unless your fun is of a predatory nature," Biffl said.

Tiki Ayiku, 28, a program and advising coordinator for the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, dubbed their spot by the window the "old lady table." The staff members, ranging in age from early twenties to early fifties, stood out in a sea of young women wearing halter tops, strapless shirts and skin-tight jeans. The students chugged Budweiser and Bud Light while playing drinking games.

Ayiku and her colleagues ate nachos, drank Diet Pepsi and even ordered their own beers, which some set aside in protest and others sipped slowly to demonstrate responsible drinking.

"I think it's important to show our women that we care about them and that events like these are not healthy for them to partake in," said Sarah Schoper, a student affairs residential fellow.

Their cheerful waitress told the group that she would not collect pennies for the beers, which arrived in plastic cups. Ayiku put hers on the windowsill. "I have no interest in it," she said.

Ayiku spotted a student from her Introduction to Leadership class. The young woman saw her and walked away but returned a short while later.

"Danny, Danny, fancy seeing you here," Ayiku said.

Bekah Seiders, a 21-year-old education major, said she didn't see anything wrong with a ladies' night as long as the women didn't overdo it. She said she had drunk six or seven beers but had a high tolerance for alcohol. "I don't think it's a problem for me," she said.

Pointing to a group of women grinding against one another to the music, she said, "But some of them I can see having a problem."

Nearby, a blond woman wearing carefully applied makeup, a black halter top and black stilettos finished drinking from a funnel as her friends took pictures. "I think it's great girls come out and have an event where they don't have to look perfect," she said, declining to give her name because, she said, her sorority prohibits students from talking to the media.

Srour said that he runs a safe bar and that all customers' identifications are checked to make sure they are of legal drinking age. "We have security staff that do a fantastic job," he said.

Of his customers, he said, "Most of these people come out. They're with all their friends and go home with their friends."

Millree Williams, director of university communications, said yesterday that the school has programs to educate students about the dangers of binge drinking. "The University of Maryland does not support any sort of promotion, event, policy or behavior that encourages any sort of volume drinking," he said.

As 11 p.m. approached Saturday, the university staff members became discouraged.

"We're definitely fighting an uphill battle here in terms of drinking education," said Christine Clark, executive director of the Office of Human Relations Programs.

The lights dimmed and the music grew louder. Customers shrieked when the deejay played such classic songs as Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" and Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me." They sang and danced, some on chairs. Servers passed out free shots of Jack Daniels.

Ayiku was struggling. Should the members of her group walk around and encourage the students not to drink? Or should they simply observe? "It is upsetting to me to watch them play this game," she said.

Male students began streaming in at 11, paying a $3 cover.

"It just perpetuates almost, like, a . . . hunter mentality," said Michael Hayes, 44, director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, one of the five male colleagues who joined the group after 11.

The group left around midnight. "We should rent the Cornerstone and have a Men's Lockdown," Ayiku joked.