UMass says punishment may not deter rowdy behavior
AMHERST — Last year, nearly three-quarters of the 652 University of Massachusetts students identified as being involved in off-campus disturbances were punished by UMass.
But it’s not clear that this is deterring other students. Judging by calls to police and the number of arrests logged so far this year, objectionable behavior at off-campus parties increased this fall.
In an interview at the Daily Hampshire Gazette Tuesday, Dean of Students Enku Gelaye, who oversees application of the university’s student code of conduct, presented data in a three-page student conduct report as well as key findings. Discipline figures for this school year are not yet available, she said.
Her statistics show 79 percent of the offenders are being referred to her office for the first time — which UMass and town officials say indicates a multi-pronged effort, including educational measures, to control behavior are having an effect.
“Code alone has never changed behavior on any college campus in America,” Gelaye said. “No system has ever figured out how to deter behavior.”
According to Gelaye’s figures, during the last academic year from June 1, 2011 through May 31, 2012, her office received notice of 459 incidents involving 652 students, most of whom were either arrested or cited by police. The bulk of the incidents occurred in Amherst and 391 of the offenders lived off campus.
Of the students referred to Gelaye, 476 received sanctions from the university. Eighteen were suspended, that is, kicked off campus for a year but allowed the chance to return. Five were expelled.
In a telephone interview later, Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe, who serves as a member of the Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce High-Risk Drinking, said the numbers belie the public perception that the university is soft on student discipline.
“I have been entirely confident in trying to spread word about how seriously they do take these issues and how strongly they’re holding students accountable,” O’Keeffe said.
The information in the student conduct report will be at the heart of a community discussion planned for Oct. 16 at 6 p.m. at the UMass police station in which residents will be invited to offer feedback.
Gelaye said the discipline process begins immediately after referrals are made to her office, usually at a Monday afternoon session involving UMass staff, Amherst and UMass police and other public safety personnel. An initial review of each case is conducted before a notice to charge is made. This step calls for citing a specific section of the student code that has allegedly been violated and informing the student through email and a notice in the mail. Gelaye said 98 percent of the students in this position make an appointment to meet with a dean.
She said 65 percent of those students eventually sign an administrative agreement, which means they accept punishment. These agreements are placed in the student’s file where they remain for seven years and are available to prospective employers, graduate schools and the military, Gelaye said.
By far the most common punishment is university reprimand, what Gelaye calls a sort of on-campus probation, which makes note of the student’s infraction and, if the individual lives on campus, indicates that the behavior could jeopardize that right. A total of 266 students received this punishment.
Reprimands are almost always coupled with required participation in the Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS) program, which costs students $100, Gelaye said. And, she said, parents are notified, an exception to the restrictions imposed through federal privacy laws.
Students can also choose to have a hearing before an administrative board. Those accused of serious offenses such as physical assaults, vandalism and alcohol sales to minors automatically take this track.
These meetings can include parents and lawyers as the adjudication process occurs, Gelaye said.
“From every level of adjudication, a student has a right of appeal,” she said. Students, for instance, can file civil suits. “That happens a lot in suspension and expulsion cases,” she said.
Gelaye said UMass is consistent in handing out punishment, regardless of whether incidents happen on or off the UMass campus.
“We have a philosophy and an approach to work. That won’t change from year to year,” Gelaye said. “We can’t set up disparate sets of sanctions.”
Amherst Police Capt. Christopher Pronovost, who participates in the weekly sessions with UMass officials, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that despite the increase in incidents this fall, he believes the university is doing its part.
“We have a lot of trust and faith in Dean Gelaye, that she’s going to do the right thing,” Pronovost said. “She has a good handle on the most severe incidents.”
He said a larger number of officers testified at student disciplinary hearings last year compared to previous years.
Yet calls for service have gone up this fall and more “nuisance house” tickets have been issued. Nuisance houses are often determined by underage drinking taking place there, large numbers of vehicles parked outside and a lack of cooperation from those on the premises that has increasingly included throwing bottles and cans at officers.
O’Keeffe said the fact that most students disciplined are first-time offenders, according to Gelaye’s report, shows that UMass intervention strategies are working.
Pronovost agreed. “There aren’t too many repeat offenders. By and large, they’re very much an anomaly,” Pronovost said.
He said he’s not sure there is much more the university can add to its arsenal.
“It’s never been APD’s contention to have students thrown out of school for alcohol or town bylaw violations,” Pronovost said.
Nancy Buffone, the university’s executive director of external relations, said the work to educate students on proper behavior must be a constant effort.
“It’s something that we have to continuously do every year because there are new students coming onto campus,” she said.
Gelaye notes that the 652 complaints involve a fraction of the student population, which indicates something is working right.
“For a lot of our students, it’s a message that’s resonating,” she said.