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Amherst seeks help from UMass on student behavior

  • FILE PHOTO<br/>Amherst Town Manager John Musante wants the University of Massachusetts to provide greater assistance in dealing with the impact of student drinking and unruly behavior.
  • GORDON DANIELS<br/>Amherst town manager John Musante
  • JOHN MUSANTE<br/>

Musante told the Select Board Monday that he is demanding the university cover the costs of staffing two additional ambulances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights this spring and is asking the campus to keep University Health Services center open longer hours on weekends to treat intoxicated students who need medical assistance.

In addition, Musante said he is requesting additional mutual Amherst and UMass police patrols for neighborhoods near the Southwest section of campus and to provide four other UMass officers to help Amherst police deal with large-scale student parties off campus.

“These are firm and pending requests that we need to work on and get in place,” Musante said.

The town manager’s stand comes in the wake of the March 9 riot at Townehouse Apartments in North Amherst involving an estimated 2,000 college-age people, many underage drinkers, where bottles and cans were thrown at police and ambulance crews, scores of people were treated for excessive intoxication and windows at the apartment complex were smashed. Six UMass students were arrested.

Musante said he is confident Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy will support the initiatives.

“Both the town and the university are invested in each other’s success,” Musante said. “But there’s much more work to be done.”

Relieving the town

Most important, he said, is lightening the burden on the town’s ambulance service. The fire department budget only allows for three ambulances, staffed by six firefighter EMTs, Musante said, which is why he wants the university to help. He said the additional ambulance service should cost about $20,000 for the spring weekends.

“I’m insisting upon it,” Musante said.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said discussions are under way.

“I expect over the next week or so we’ll be focused on what we can commit to and in what terms,” said Blaguszewksi, adding the university would make its decision in partnership with the town.

Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson said having five ambulances available between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. on weekends would reduce the need for mutual aid ambulances.

He said during warm-weather weekends in the fall the department was able to staff five ambulances using overtime and had to call for mutual aid just once. He estimated the cost of that additional staffing was about $19,000

The request to keep University Health Services open longer hours is not as fleshed out yet, Musante said, but is something the university has done before, most recently during the February blizzard. He called it “very, very helpful.”

Nelson said having the center open longer hours will allow ambulances carrying intoxicated people to avoid the 10-mile trip to Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.

“We’ll be in service and available a greater amount of time,” Nelson said.

Select Board member Diana Stein said it is important that UMass step up and provide more help.

“I think it’s terrible our own citizens have to wait for an ambulance because they’re busy taking drunken students to Cooley Dick,” Stein said.

Nelson said he, too, hopes that UMass will come through, but he is prepared if not.

“I have a couple of plans in place based on how talks go with UMass,” Nelson said.

The mutual police patrols will be visible and serve as a deterrent to underage drinking, limit the large gatherings and improve the quality of life on Fearing Street and Lincoln Avenue, Musante said. Police Chief Scott Livingstone said he is working with UMass Police Chief John Horvath on this.

Livingstone also has provided a schedule for response costs to nuisance houses with three or more violations, which will allow the town to assess these penalties directly to landlords and property managers should situations arise.

Musante said this, along with alcohol enforcement, is one of a number of tools being used.

“I’m going to do my best to get all these remaining things in place for spring,” Musante said.

Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe said she supports the multi-pronged approach.

“Your plan sounds great. I hope the university embraces that,” O’Keeffe said.

Town still miffed

Meanwhile, Select Board members had their first opportunity to express displeasure over the Townehouse riot.

Board member Aaron Hayden said other than the six students arrested, who will face disciplinary action for violations of the student code of conduct, none of the other nearly 2,000 people involved will experience repercussions for their involvement.

O’Keeffe said she would have liked to see the university send emails to students in advance of the pre-spring break weekend warning them about bad behavior.

The university took proactive steps, Blaguszewski said, including notifying students in fraternities and sororities that parties would not be tolerated and sending letters to those students living in off-campus homes with previous nuisance house violations.

“I think our assessment was that broad messaging to the whole student body wasn’t going to be effective in diminishing participation in downtown or elsewhere,” Blaguszewski said.

Board member Alisa Brewer said she was ashamed of the tone and content of a letter from John Kennedy, the vice chancellor for university relations, printed in the Gazette, that appeared to place blame for what happened at Townehouse on the Blarney Blowout bar event downtown and the general drinking culture.

She said it did not reflect the work of the Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce High-Risk Drinking.

While the letter described the campus community as being “appalled by the behavior of students at a large gathering at the Townehouse Apartments that accompanied this past weekend’s Blarney Blowout,” it also suggested “an event that encourages binge drinking at 11 a.m. should have no place in our community.”

Stein said Subbaswamy should have written the letter. “It would have been stronger leadership and more convincing,” she said.

Blaguszewski said Kennedy was not trying to blame the town businesses or town officials, but rather simply letting residents know the university understands the issue.

“The letter was designed to express ... that we were appalled by behavior of students,” Blaguszewski said.

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