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Editorial: United front in Amherst for town-gown civility

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The rental trucks have already arrived and the rest of Amherst’s school year population will be rolling in this Labor Day weekend. While this can bring anxiety to abutters of the University of Massachusetts, campus and town officials say they have prepared better than ever for a peaceful academic year.

The 4,000 UMass freshmen underwent what appears to be one of the best planned and most aggressive orientation programs in recent memory, run jointly by the university and town leaders. The goal: set high expectations for student behavior on and off campus.

In the past several years UMass and Amherst officials have built stronger ties when it comes to combating public drinking, loud parties and rowdyism. It’s not just about noise, litter and vandalism. There are serious public safety concerns at stake. Outreach efforts to educate students who need a lesson on civility are nothing new, and the drum beat about student civility has gotten stronger in the last few years. This year, a well-coordinated town-gown effort kicked that message up a few notches.

For the first time this year Amherst police joined UMass officers to talk directly with freshmen about the town’s bylaws related to noise, nuisance houses, kegs and other aspects of staying out of trouble when heading off campus.

Police Chief Scott Livingstone notes that coaches also invited Amherst officers in to speak with student athletes. Town Manager John Musante will attend the new student convocation Saturday. Police will be taking the message to the streets and, in some cases, door-to-door. Livingstone will have his entire department working Labor Day weekend, handling the influx of students and ready to step in to squelch any alcohol-fueled incidents. UMass police will back up Amherst on patrols, with both departments working closely.

Also continuing this year is the “Walk this Way” campaign, which encourages students to refrain from walking on residential Fearing Street late at night; not having buses drop students at the intersection of Fearing and North Pleasant streets after 10 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; and the Student Government Association funding the Sober Shuttle late at night to bring students back to campus.

Dean of Students Enku Gelaye deserves credit for the strong orientation effort this year. She arrived on campus in early 2011 and has created good relations with town leaders. She has a reputation for reaching out to students and getting tough with them where appropriate. Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy’s support of the civility campaign is critical. In fact, a number of steps taken by UMass and the community over the past few years appear to be tempering off-campus behavior.

In 2010, the town set higher fines for violations of its noise, open-container and “nuisance house” bylaws. In 2011 UMass updated its student code of conduct so misbehavior off-campus is taken as seriously as on-campus violations. Between June 1, 2012, and May 31, 2013, of 684 students involved in off-campus incidents, 15 were suspended, 84 placed on deferred suspension and 463 found responsible, receiving some form of sanction under the student code of conduct.

Amherst Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe has said “The entire culture around discipline and off-campus behavior has changed for the better.” Longtime town observers noted that the last two weeks of April and early May were quieter than usual in Amherst, perhaps a reflection of these various policies taking hold. If that’s a trend, and it holds into September, chock it up to the concerted and coordinated town-gown campaign. The university’s reputation and its relationship with Amherst are too important to be tarnished by a minority of undergrads acting badly.

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