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Editorial: UMass quickens timetable on student discipline cases

We’re pleased to learn that the University of Massachusetts is not only keeping the heat on students suspected of violating the school’s code of conduct, but turning it up. With the spring semester over, unacceptable off-campus behavior that disrupted life in town cannot be allowed to get a pass.

A UMass official told a recent meeting of the Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce High-Risk Drinking that the school is working to strengthen its response to off-campus incidents. One way it is doing that is by cutting through the backlog of cases from this spring. If there are to be consequences for students, punishments in most cases will come now, before summer officially arrives.

The timeliness of punishments must be balanced against the rights of students to have their cases handled fairly. But swifter sanctions, we believe, help make clear the university’s resolve to hold students accountable for what they do off campus. One way to show no guilty party will be allowed to slip away is the longstanding policy on seniors and diplomas. Some seniors at the May 10 commencement may have gotten a handshake while an “administrative hold” remained in place on their degrees, pending resolution of disciplinary cases.

Fast-track disciplinary hearings — some using Skype video interviews over the Internet — aren’t the only way students who misbehave are getting the news.

This spring, UMass launched several pilot projects related to student behavior in an effort to get a better handle on off-campus disturbances. Nancy Buffone, executive director of the school’s Office of External Relations and University Events, says the school sent weekly messages to students and their parents about the need to respect the code of conduct.

In a savvy move, UMass also reached out to students who have earlier shown disregard for school rules, in effect putting them on notice that if they violate the code, they will again find themselves before hearings. On another front, UMass also ran joint police patrols with Amherst officers and kicked in $40,000 to enable the Amherst Fire Department to extend its ambulance services on busy weekends. And it tracked off-campus residences cited for violations of Amherst’s noise and nuisance bylaws.

All of these are smart moves that may well have helped make this spring one of the quietest in recent years in terms of off-campus parties. The one major exception was the March 9 disturbance outside the Townehouse Apartments following the ill-advised Blarney Blowout, a St. Patrick’s Day promotion downtown.

Last year, UMass began disclosing the number of students who faced conduct hearings and how those cases were playing out. That is an essential step. It gives town residents a view into both the progress the school is making on this issue and the difficulty it faces in adjudicating the most severe cases.

We hope the university will continue to be open about its disciplinary work and keep pressing to find effective ways to help Amherst keep the peace.

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