Charleston's bar scene looks different through sober eyes, say college students who volunteer to help their peers safely navigate a night on the town.
Friday night, a five-student team on upper King Street diffused an argument before punches were thrown; helped two young women who were drunk and walking alone; and arranged a ride for a man staggering into traffic while singing "Nobody Wanna See Us Together."
The volunteers are part of the Peer Assistance Leadership program, a joint effort between the College of Charleston and the Charleston Police Department. After being trained, volunteer teams of at least four students walk the
Upper King Street area, home to many bars where students frequently drink, from about 10 p.m. until after the bars close at 2 a.m.
Volunteers help young people who might be drunk and could become targets of street crime, injure themselves or cause a disturbance in surrounding neighborhoods.
A handful of police officers who are excited about the program and work closely with the students say the program stops problems from becoming legal issues. College leaders say it helps keep students and other young people safe. And both groups say it's an exciting new way to help break down the us-versus-them mentality between students and police.
The team began its shift Friday with a 10 p.m. meeting with Charleston police officers.
Then the students put on bright yellow T-shirts with PAL emblazoned on the back, grab walkie-talkies and start walking the streets.
They keep in regular contact with officers throughout the night.
Essentially, the team walks a continuous loop, up one side of King and down the other between John and Cannon streets.
Volunteers Chris Fudge and Nate Gearles, juniors at Charleston Southern University, said they felt good Friday about helping to calm an argument between two men before it became a physical fight.
As the team walked by, one of the men punched his van. Fudge and Gearles, who briefly worked with the program last year, simply stopped and talked to the men, and let the one who punched his van vent his anger. Eventually, the other man involved lost interest and walked away.
Whitney Hinds, a College of Charleston student who has been involved since the program began, said students are trained to walk the loop and simply be aware of their surroundings. They listen for raised voices and other signs of distress, she said.
If they see two people engaged in an argument, she said, they often just stop, listen and make sure things don't escalate. Often they don't get involved. But they keep an eye on things until they settle down.
The students do get involved, however, when they see a situation that could be dangerous, like a woman walking alone. On Friday night, a young woman who was alone, likely drunk and disoriented, was walking north on King Street. When stopped, the woman didn't realize she was headed in the wrong direction. Students alerted officers, who took the young woman home.
People on the street constantly stopped the students, who stand out in their yellow shirts, and asked them what they're doing. Team members explained they were simply there to help, not prevent drinking. Many people thanked them and said it was a great idea.
As the night wore on, and the crowd become more intoxicated, the conversations got more strange. One man just staggered past the team, looked at their shirts and said "Wow, that's (expletive) yellow."
Charleston Police Sgt. Trevor Shelor, who talked to students before and after their Friday shift, said that the program last year ran from mid-February through April and student volunteers talked with about 120 young people on the street. Every one of those conversations potentially saved someone from being harmed or getting in trouble, he said.
Volunteer Patten Bruce, a junior at the College of Charleston, said he was on a team last year that intervened when a young woman's boyfriend was grabbing her and trying to pull her along against her will. "I think we saved her from a predator," Bruce said. Successes like that make him feel good about volunteering in the program, he said.
Bruce, like the other students Friday, all said they got involved in the program because they wanted to be helpful to their peers.
Shelor made it clear that students aren't doing police work. And officers still frequently patrol the city's bar districts, he said. But the students are in a unique position to prevent problems before they become legal issues.
Evie Nadel, the College of Charleston's associate dean of students and founder of the program, said about 30 students from the college and CSU currently volunteer. It's open to students from all local universities.
Now, Nadel said, student teams only work on Friday nights and only in the Upper King Street area. She's recruiting more volunteers now and hopes to eventually send teams out on Saturdays, as well, and possibly include the area around Market Street.
But for now, the volunteers have enough to handle, especially around 2 a.m., as the bars close and people who have been drinking all night pour into the street.
Around 2 a.m. Saturday, one young man on a skateboard was latching one end of a rope to the back of a friend's bike, hoping to hold the other end and have a the biker pull him home. Another was carrying a bottle of alcohol running alongside a sport utility vehicle yelling "I'm pledging." And many people, drinks in hand, packed into an old limousine completely covered in artificial grass.
Fudge said his volunteer work has "really opened my eyes" to what can happen after a night of drinking. And Gearles just shakes his head over "the decisions people make" when they're drunk.
College of Charleston Associate Dean of Students Evie Nadel (right) sits in on a meeting with students in the Peer Assistance Leaders group before they set out on a patrol around the upper King Street bar district Friday night.×