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WVU takes burning issue too lightly

| Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, 11:04 a.m.

For some reason, I'm guessing cavemen didn't have this in mind when they invented fire.

Some West Virginia University students through the decades have made it a tradition to burn something — mostly couches, but also trash and other things — when their football team wins a game. Or if it loses a game. Or if the men's basketball team wins or loses a big game. Or if an historical world event happens, such as Osama bin Laden's death.

On Saturday night, when the Mountaineers offense pulled out a big football victory over the Texas Longhorns, city authorities reported more than 40 fires. That's one night.

Well, Morgantown mayor Jim Manilla has had it. He has proposed charging an impact fee on each WVU student so that students pay their share of the costs for firefighters, police and emergency workers to deal with the mayhem. The fee, which would raise more than $1 million annually for the city, has been coined by some as a “riot fee.”

First, a riot fee sounds like something you'd have to pay if you lived in the Middle East, not in an American college town. On the other hand, hitting students and parents in their wallets does tend to send a message.

Hizzoner is proposing a fee of $20 a semester; $40 for a typical two-semester year. Seriously? That's how much some students spend on alcohol on a weekend. Parents already are shelling out anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 for their kids to attend one of the nation's best-known party schools. Forty bucks isn't much of a deterrent.

College costs already include many nonsense fees that eventually add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars. So what's another $40 a school year, especially when that covers your first drunken foray into destroying someone else's property for no reason. (Your teetotaler roommate's $40 covers the second one.)

Twenty dollars sounds like a good fee if you want a slap on the wrist, not if you're trying to prevent the burning of your city. Perhaps officials might consider more preventive measures, and not just concede that there's nothing they can do about tradition?

The Trib reported on Wednesday that one parent suggested a university-organized bonfire to keep students happy. Here is another idea: Perhaps the university and the city could treat those who start fires — students and non-students — as the criminals they are and charge them with arson.

Corey Farris, West Virginia University's interim dean of students, graduated from WVU, and even he has no idea how the burning tradition started. However, Farris said his research found that it's been going on for about 40 years. Over the years, he feels that the university and the surrounding city have treated post-game activities as a crime, not a tradition. The school has suspended or expelled 40 students because of activities tied to post-game shenanigans, Farris said.

“So it's been a crime all along,” Farris said.

Yet it seems to me that officials made the mistake of treating this as a “kids will be kids” crime over the years. Students most often faced charges of malicious burning, which leads to a maximum $1,000 fine. Morgantown police Chief Ed Preston said that only recently have authorities decided to up the ante by leveling the third-degree arson charge, which carries a maximum three-year prison sentence.

Now we're talking.

Nafari Vanaski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400 ext. 8669 or nvanaski@tribweb.com.

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