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Editorial: Will UMass student misbehavior be a problem forever?

A gathering Tuesday in Amherst could be an unhappy one. At 6 p.m., officials with the University of Massachusetts Amherst will present data on how they disciplined the 652 students flagged for bad behavior by Amherst police over 12 months. Can residents set aside their frustration long enough to hear this explanation?

We hope they can, because knowing what the school can or cannot achieve through its disciplinary process matters. But it is only a piece of the puzzle. Once grasped, people determined to repair the quality of life in Amherst neighborhoods have a right to demand that new steps be taken.

The explanation they are likely to hear tonight suggests that the university, under the guidance of Dean of Students Enku Gelaye, is doing all it can to punish past misbehavior and to discourage future acts that violate the school’s code of conduct.

That sounds like an abstraction but it’s not: We’re talking about the whole sorry enchilada of public rowdiness — from assaults on police officers at student parties to low-grade hooliganism like public urination and 3 a.m. noise in neighborhoods. September was a particularly bad month for all this and came on the heels of the school’s efforts, at a first-year student orientation, to lay down the law. Students were asked to pledge to be good neighbors out in the community.

Gelaye, who holds a law degree, is a principled administrator and rightly respects due process. Her office meets every Monday afternoon to review the need for new disciplinary action, based on weekend incidents.

Though the Amherst Police Department weathered a tough first month with returning and new students, it respects the work done in Gelaye’s office, according to Capt. Chris Pronovost.

Of the 652 students flagged for disciplinary action from June 1, 2011, through May 31, five were expelled and 18 were suspended. In all, 476 received sanctions, most getting a reprimand that is, in effect, a form of on-campus probation. While they remain enrolled, records of transgressions go into their files and can be released to prospective grad schools and employers for seven years.

In a conversation at the Gazette last week, Gelaye said the disciplinary process, like case law itself, is the product of years of experience and is in sync with how other universities handle these problems. She made clear that the way the school punishes students will not change, not even by lowering the bar for suspension and expulsion. “Code alone has never changed behavior on any college campus in America,” she said.

No one with a legitimate grievance wants to hear that people are doing all they can.

Optimists see glimmers of hope. One is that the students running afoul of the code of conduct tend to be first-year students. That suggests that after receiving a reprimand, they sober up and fly right.

Pessimists would note that thousands of new students descend on Amherst every fall and some of them become public nuisances, or worse, before reforming. This will continue to keep residents in neighborhoods near campus up at night and treat them, come morning, to the sight of fresh vomit in their flower beds.

We get why that kind of behavior lies out of the reach of sanctions. It is unneighborly, but not necessarily illegal. Bad manners are fleeting but memorable, and, multiplied by a hundred or a thousand over the course of a school year, degrade neighborhoods.

If the UMass disciplinary code is not able to change behavior, can something else succeed at that?

The school says it continues to work to educate students about right and wrong, when it comes to behavior on and off campus. We’ve detailed past efforts by the school. It is clearly doing something, but it’s equally clear that the extent of community education aimed at improving student behavior can and must be increased.

Meantime, we applaud efforts by residents in the most affected neighborhoods to fashion their own new tools, in part by making landlords more responsible for the behavior of their tenants.

Members of the Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods have submitted four citizen petition articles that, if approved at Town Meeting, could give the community new ways to fight back against rowdyism.

One measure would adapt the existing nuisance house bylaw to require the town manager’s office to inform owners of rental property when their tenants are cited or arrested. Another would enable the town to fine property owners and management companies to recover the costs, after a third violation, of public safety responses.

Other proposals seek to curb the transformation of residential neighborhoods into off-campus housing by mandating that in cases of single-family homes converted into multi-family dwellings, an owner live there.

The conversation, and we hope it can be that, continues at 6 p.m. Tuesday in a meeting at the UMass police station.

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