Raucous student parties can be taxing for college towns
Rowdy student-led St. Patrick's Day gatherings at universities across the country, fueled by social media, have officials struggling to combat the growing trend of all-consuming party weekends that tax public safety systems.
Hundreds of college students and others inundated Indiana Borough last weekend, spilling into the streets and leaving behind a trail of empty beer cans, YouTube videos and urine.
South Seventh Street was a gathering spot for a crowd estimated at 400, including students from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and other schools, who antagonized police, forcing them to pepper-spray several partiers.
The student-planned “IUPatty's” celebration was the latest in a string of parties in the past few weeks.
• More than 70 people were arrested and four police officers were injured during a “Blarney Blowout” last weekend near the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, according to the Boston Globe.
• Police issued about 260 tickets and made a dozen arrests on Saturday at the Unofficial St. Patrick's Day near the University of Illinois in Champaign, The News-Gazette reported.
• Police in State College handled 381 calls and issued 102 citations/arrests during State Patty's Day events from Feb. 28 to March 2, a decline from 2013.
Social media has made it easy for students to post photos or videos and share them with friends at other schools, said Corey Farris, dean of students at West Virginia University.
“Others are seeing it and so now you get some of that copycat stuff going on,” Farris said. “Campuses that never experienced it, they're now starting to experience it and it's catching the local authorities off-guard.”
The solution for universities is to develop a comprehensive strategy involving local government, police, students and community members, officials said.
Farris and Morgantown, W.Va., officials have worked hard to reduce the university's trademark couch burning and other celebratory fires.
“In order to solve the problem, we all had to acknowledge and recognize the problem,” Farris said.
To combat rowdy party weekends, police increased patrols, students spoke out against bad behavior and university officials strengthened disciplinary penalties. Students caught fighting, burning couches or antagonizing law enforcement can face expulsion along with felony criminal charges, Farris said.
Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston said police began using felony arson charges in 2011 against students and others who start potentially dangerous fires, rather than a misdemeanor malicious burning ordinance.
“The misdemeanor citations weren't cutting it,” he said.
A shift to more responsible festivities was evident after a recent home basketball win.
“They stormed the court, but they didn't burn the town down,” Preston said. “We can still celebrate responsibly, but not destructively.”
Penn State took a similar approach and experienced a 58 percent drop in arrests and citations, from 244 in 2013 to 102 this year, according to university figures.
Officials established a task force to curb State Patty's Day, a holiday developed by students in 2007, said spokeswoman Lisa Powers.
The task force made nearly all of downtown State College alcohol-free on March 1 and 2, with 34 out of 35 establishments and five beer distributors agreeing not to serve or sell alcohol in exchange for a stipend based on occupancy. Penn State paid the businesses more than $211,000, using parking fine revenue and contributions from State College Borough, Powers said.
The state Liquor Control Board agreed to close four liquor stores from early Friday evening through Saturday at the request of local officials, spokeswoman Stacy Kriedeman said.
Students started a day of community service projects to promote constructive behavior.
“When the public comes out and fights against (partying) and fights ... people get the message and don't want to do it,” said Sen. Jake Corman, R-State College.
At IUP, many students wore green hats or clothing as they celebrated St. Patrick's Day early on borough streets, but brawls broke out and left one police officer with a broken hand.
“It became a mob gang mentality,” said Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty. “We can't risk officers getting hurt. We need to change our game plan.”
Elaine Replogle, a sociology professor at the University of Oregon, said the size and composition of a crowd impact how students act. The bigger the crowd, the easier it is to get away with something, she said.
“Once you self-identify with the crowd you're in — either what they're celebrating or because they're your fraternity or your sorority or your group — it becomes harder to go against the flow,” Replogle said. “Of course that's exacerbated” by drinking or drug use.
Most of the revelers who caused problems were not IUP students, Dougherty said.
“It's not fair to single out IUP solely, because the majority of the kids that go to IUP aren't involved in this,” he said.
About 350 IUP students, trash bags in hand, helped with cleanup efforts last Sunday, said Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, who lives near the campus.
“I think IUP was a lot better prepared for it this year than last year,” White said. “The excess ... is just so over the top. It's scary. You worry about somebody seriously getting hurt or dying of alcohol poisoning.”
IUP spokeswoman Michelle Fryling said the university urged students to act responsibly in the days leading up to the event.
IUP President Michael A. Driscoll said on Friday that after consulting with the university trustees and Indiana County Commissioners Chair Rod Ruddock, he and Ruddock are asking the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to help with a formal After Action Review of last weekend's events.
Driscoll said Indiana County Emergency Management will take part in examining what happened and planning for how to handle and preventsuch events.
Kriedeman said the LCB is “absolutely willing to consider various options to assist college communities,” including closing state stores.
But Kenn Marshall, spokesman for the State System of Higher Education, said paying bars and beer distributors to shut their doors is likely off the table because state funding and tuition dollars can't be used.
“I doubt there are any surplus funds, so unless a university received a private donation designated specifically for the purpose of paying bars to close, it probably couldn't happen,” Marshall said.
Kari Andren and Renatta Signorini are a staff writers for Trib Total Media. Andren can be reached at 724-850-2856 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Signorini can be reached at 724-837-5374 or email@example.com.