Town awaits condemnation by UMass of Saturday riot
Town officials in Amherst are waiting for the University of Massachusetts to condemn the bahavior of some 2,000 college-age people who were involved in a riot Saturday in North Amherst. During a meeting Wednesday, officials discussed strategy to discourage disuptive partying by students on weekends during the spring, including steering them away from walking on Fearing Street between campus and downtown. This house party on Fearing Street was photographed in October. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
AMHERST — Four days after 2,000 college-age people were involved in a daytime riot at an off-campus apartment complex in North Amherst, town officials are still waiting for the University of Massachusetts to publicly condemn the behavior.
“There has not been any response from the university yet that this is not acceptable,” said Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe, speaking at a Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce High-Risk Drinking meeting Wednesday afternoon. “The tone has to be set from the top, and it has to be loud and clear.”
Cans, bottles and snowballs were hurled at public safety officers attempting to disperse the growing crowd and tend to three dozen people sickened by intoxication. Six people were arrested.
Tony Maroulis, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, said the university seems to be detaching itself from student actions off campus. He said residents and business owners want them to be accountable.
“The overwhelming message I’m hearing is that this needs to come from the top,” Maroulis said.
Sally Linowski, an assistant dean of students, said everyone at UMass agrees that underage drinking and students throwing bottles and cans tarnishes the university. She said conversations are happening at the highest levels, with Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and other university leaders, to get a statement out to the community.
“Consistent language is being developed to condemn this,” Linowski said.
Tensions were evident at the meeting of the coalition, a partnership between UMass and the town.
Maroulis said the longer people have to wait for a UMass response, the more frustrating it is. “We can’t continue to have resident pitted against student,” Maroulis said.
O’Keeffe said there appears to be an unwillingness to confront the specter of “ZooMass.”
“The problem is there is a growing and unchecked reality that partying at UMass is extreme and dangerous,” O’Keeffe said. “The university needs to own its reputation and make changes.”
The regularly scheduled meeting was planned to discuss strategies to prevent disruptive partying behavior by students on weekends during the warm weather. There is a plan, during three weekend nights in April, to try to steer students away from walking on Fearing Street, a popular means of getting from campus to the town center and back.
But Linowski acknowledged that it is too late to change behavior before the first warm-weather weekend. “There is no one simple solution,” she said. “I think we all know that you need to attack it on many different levels.”
Amherst Police Capt. Christopher Pronovost said non-students are coming to Amherst on weekends because of UMass’ reputation as a party school.
“That image follows you,” Pronovost said, “(UMass) is a destination now. There’s an equal amount from out of town.”
O’Keeffe said social media, including Twitter, showed that students participating in last Saturday’s mayhem were taking pride in their behavior, especially when the gathering was dispersed.
“What’s the old saying? It’s not a party until someone gets hurt?” O’Keeffe said.
But Akshay Kapoor, the president of the Student Government Association, said the student body need not take responsibility for last Saturday’s disruptions, and that it would have been a normal weekend without Amherst bars sponsoring the annual pre-St. Patrick’s Day promotion called the Blarney Blowout.
Pronovost said placing the blame on a promotion by taverns is shortsighted, observing that most of those participating in the North Amherst outdoor partying were likely underage and wouldn’t have been admitted to any Amherst drinking establishment.
He cited an occasion last year when a crowd of students descended on Puffer’s Pond on a spring day — for no specific celebration — consumed alcohol and left behind mounds of trash. “They don’t need a reason anymore,” Pronovost said.
Linowski said prior to last weekend her office directed messages to off-campus students living in houses where nuisance house tickets have been issued, notified fraternities and sororities about repercussions for holding large-scale parties and told on-campus students about their community responsibilities.
Kapoor said he isn’t sure anything other than peer pressure will change behavior. The issue for many students, he said, is that they feel Amherst has little to offer them.
“Honestly, there’s nothing else to do,” Kapoor said.
UMass Deputy Police Chief Patrick Archbald said he is working with Dean of Students Enku Gelaye to review video footage of the event and see if more troublemakers can be identified.
Though only six students were arrested, Linowski said discipline could come for others. ”Anybody we can identify will be held accountable,” Linowski said.
Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said police will take other measures, including monitoring students leaving dorm rooms with backpacks filled with alcohol.
He said the department has even contemplated letting similar riots continue without any police intervention.
“We’re looking at doing nothing and letting you guys tear things apart,” Livingstone said.
But he noted the town might then be legally liable for what happens.
This also poses issues for firefighters. Assistant Fire Chief Lindsay Stromgren said that ambulance crews are responsible for any patients who need medical attention and they would have difficulty treating people if police officers weren’t there to calm the situation.