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Bloodshed mars homecomings nationwide

By Cody Francis and Jennifer Reeger,
Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010
 

Home for the weekend from his Virginia college, Jeron Grayson was hanging out with friends at an off-campus homecoming party about a mile from California University of Pennsylvania last Saturday night.

As the clear, crisp fall night drifted into early morning, the Mechanic Street apartment was jammed with 80 to 100 people — some students and some, like Grayson, just visiting for the weekend of parades, a big football game and a lot of parties.

But the partying stopped just after 2 a.m. when a group of young men from a nearby town showed up at the door and were denied entry.

Police said one of them pulled a gun and fired randomly, killing Grayson and making him the latest victim in a rash of homecoming weekend violence that has marred the traditional autumn celebration on several college campuses in recent years.

• At Penn State University, five young men were stabbed in two separate fights that broke out during homecoming festivities this month. Three were stabbed during a fight at a private homecoming party organized by students at the Knights of Columbus in State College. Two others were stabbed in a melee in front of the 797 Lounge, a bar in the borough. No arrests have been made in the stabbings, but six people were cited for their roles in the fight outside the bar. None was a Penn State student.

• While no major incidents were reported at Indiana University of Pennsylvania this year, an Arnold man was stabbed to death in an off-campus fight during homecoming in 2005. Neither the victim nor the assailant was a student.

• At Winona State University in Minnesota, two women were shot during that school's homecoming weekend earlier this month. They are recovering.

• In Westchester County, New York, a football player was shot during nearby Pace University's homecoming weekend this month. The 20-year-old student was shot to death by police, who fired through the windshield of his car after authorities were called to a bar to quell a disturbance. The circumstances of that shooting are in dispute and the investigation continues.

As has often been the case, neither the victim nor the alleged shooter in the California incident — Keith E. Jones, 19, of Monessen — were students at the host school.

The problem of controlling college outsiders is a worrisome issue everywhere, police say.

"A lot of the friends come here that may be visiting from other schools. They're not part of the community or part of the campus, so they don't really care what they're doing," said Windy Stafford, chief of police at Slippery Rock University, where homecoming is being celebrated this weekend.

Police say college campuses are a magnet for young people in search of fun.

"I think what attracts them is that this is a college town, and they always assume they can find a party or meet somebody," said California University of Pennsylvania Police Chief Bob Downey, who oversees the safety of the school's 9,400 students.

Social networking sites such as Facebook have made it easier for anyone to find out where parties are being held.

Many students routinely post messages about their upcoming parties — complete with addresses and times — on their social networking pages. While some students restrict who can see these postings, others permit anyone signed onto the site to see the party notices.

Downey said this has had a "huge impact" on the influx of young people — many of them nonstudents — into his town for parties.

But he doesn't believe anything more could have been done to stop the shooting last weekend in California.

"There is no amount of preparation that could have stopped that from happening, in my opinion," Downey said.

At least 16 officers from the university and borough police departments were on duty at the time, and no one had complained about the party in an off-campus apartment, just blocks from the police department and California's usually quiet downtown, a collection of small shops selling everything from baked goods and Chinese food to pizza and ice cream.

John Nicoletti, a Colorado police psychologist who works on campus violence issues, said "law enforcement can't be everywhere, unfortunately. Fortunately, (violent incidents) don't occur a lot, but when they do occur, they are pretty disruptive for everybody."

Nicoletti said party organizers should be prepared for crashers and how they would deal with events that get out of hand.

"Unfortunately, you get young kids and you get alcohol and you get partying, and nobody's going to be the mass handler," Nicoletti said.

Indiana Borough police Sgt. William Vojtek said planning for homecoming weekend is year-round in his town.

"It's our busiest time of the year," said Vojtek "It's the grand finale for us."

The borough coordinates efforts with university police, state police, neighboring departments and even the state Department of Corrections, which provides a vehicle to transport people to the county jail so patrolmen can stay on the streets.

"You hear people say, 'Every time you turn around, there's a cop somewhere,' and that's the reaction we're looking for," said Vojtek.

At larger campuses, police plan for homecoming much the same as they do for any football weekend.

"Homecoming obviously falls on a home football game weekend, so we're staffed for a major event anyway," said Bob Roberts, police chief at West Virginia University where there are 29,306 students.

Roberts said he pays attention to the game's kickoff time and opponent when deciding how many officers will be on duty. Night games often require more officers than day games, and the fact that today's homecoming game against Syracuse falls at noon might mean a less eventful weekend, he said.

Although University of Pittsburgh police would not comment about staffing for next weekend's homecoming, the management at one Oakland fixture — Peter's Pub — is taking steps to ensure the safety of their customers.

Almost everyone on staff at Peter's will be at work next weekend during homecoming and two police officers will be on detail near the bar.

Because homecoming falls during Halloween weekend, bar managers decided not to host their annual holiday party.

"(Homecoming) is gonna be a crazy weekend like it always is, and we don't need a bunch of people running around in masks, too," Salem said. "We just want to minimize the riffraff."

With 44,304 students, Penn State doesn't change its strategy during homecoming weekends.

"When you have 100,000 and some odd thousand people coming into town for a football game, regardless of who's playing, you prepare the same way," said Penn State spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz. "There is a great police presence there."

Mountz said the incidents of violence, such as the stabbings this year, are isolated.

Still, some student leaders at Penn State were concerned enough about the stabbings to hold a community forum this week.

"State College is known as one of the safest towns in America," said Travis Glenn Salters, president of the student chapter of the NAACP, and one of the forum organizers. "Any time any act of violence occurs, it's a big deal here. When there's five stabbings in one weekend, that just raises an eyebrow something's wrong here."

Salters said fights are bound to occur, but he wonders what prompts someone to bring a knife to a party.

"We can put in as many guidelines and policies and implement as many solutions as we want, but until we change that culture, real change isn't going to occur," Salters said. "... Parties off campus are inevitable. We need to prepare the organization of a party. There needs to be more responsibility for the party from the people throwing the party. It all falls back on personal responsibility."

 

 
 


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