Editorial: Destructive student behavior at UMass

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst students gather in the Southwest Residential Area after the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl on Sunday. Seven people were arrested and seven people were taken to the Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Thursday, February 08, 2018

The destructive behavior by students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst after Sunday night’s Super Bowl is a disappointing return to the violence prompted by previous sporting events and off-campus revelry, including the annual Blarney Blowout that began as bar-sponsored event downtown and led to large crowds of students roaming through town.

UMass officials now must take action against the students responsible for Sunday’s behavior, and examine what went wrong with precautions that had been used in recent years to largely prevent violence.

On Sunday, seven students were arrested and seven people were taken to Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton for, among other things, treatment of head injuries and broken bones. A crowd estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000 people gathered in the Southwest Residential Area after the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots, and police in riot gear responded to the scene where students were observed destroying property, lighting firecrackers, throwing bottles and fighting.

Police issued “multiple dispersal orders before using PepperBall to clear the disturbance,” according to UMass, which reported that vandalism cost an estimated $2,685 in damages.

“It was a difficult and a very disappointing night,” said UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski. “In recent years we have not experienced this at all and when students have come out after Super Bowls and other events, they had relatively brief celebrations and they had been fairly uneventful.”

Amherst Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson, whose staff was involved in handling the ambulance calls, used stronger language. “We thought the rain and cold and icy conditions would deter people from going crazy, but it didn’t seem to matter. These folks were hellbent on creating havoc.”

Nelson added that some of his veteran personnel said the scene was unusual. “They’ve never seen a crowd so angry and violent. They hadn’t seen that for years.”

Despite having additional ambulances in Amherst called from Northampton, Easthampton, Belchertown, South Hadley and South County in South Deerfield, Nelson said having to respond to the campus violence made it more difficult to answer calls for medical assistance elsewhere in town.

“It’s not acceptable,” he said. “For me, that’s the crux of the night.”

Besides the severity of the injuries — one woman suffered a broken arm, another had a possible broken nose and a third was hit in the head with a beer bottle — the violence directed at police was particularly troubling. One of the arrested students allegedly threw ice that struck an officer, another allegedly tossed a road flare toward an officer and a third allegedly threw a bottle that narrowly missed officers.

The seven students were arraigned Monday and Tuesday and pleaded not guilty to charges including failing to disperse during a riot, assault and battery on a police officer, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.

UMass officials already have started a review under the student code of conduct. “If students are found responsible for a code violation, they face sanctions ranging from a reprimand and probation up to suspension or expulsion from the university,” according to UMass.

That’s an appropriate first step. The university also must examine what led to the increased violence this year and determine whether additional precautions are needed beyond those that have been used successfully in recent years. Those include limiting guests in dormitories and increasing security on campus.

UMass officials also would be wise to revisit the reforms recommended in a 2014 report by former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis in the wake of that year’s off-campus Blarney Blowout during March that resulted in 55 arrests. The Davis report addressed issues ranging from the tone of messages sent by UMass officials to students warning them about their behavior, to better coordinated planning between campus and town authorities.

“Moving forward, we need to be very clear about everybody’s responsibility to be members of the school community, respect each other, respect the university and all of us who are part of the community,” Blaguszewski said this week.

University officials and student leaders must work together to send a strong message that a return to violent rowdyism on or off campus will not be tolerated.