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UMass, town of Amherst prepare for annual ‘Blarney Blowout’

Officials from the University of Massachusetts and the town of Amherst have begun a collaborative effort to prepare for the annual “Blarney Blowout” St. Patrick’s Day celebration, set to take place March 7.

During last year’s event, police in riot gear arrested 55 students and used pepper spray to disperse a crowd of nearly 4,000 people gathered at North Amherst apartment complexes. The incident prompted the University to commission a report on large, crowd-related disturbances by former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis.

Over the past several weeks, police, administrators and student leaders have been working to implement recommendations from the Davis report in an effort to prevent a similar incident from occurring this year.

“This is a joint collaboration and partnership which has gotten stronger between the town and the University,” said Amherst Town Manager John Musante during a press conference Wednesday. “We are focused on implementing recommendations focused on prevention strategies, and also mitigation when those are not adequate.”

Those strategies include working with owners of Amherst bars and liquor stores, rental property landlords and UMass students, according to Musante.

The unsanctioned celebration has typically taken place at bars in downtown Amherst, but has moved to off-campus apartments in recent years. Musante said this year there will be “no bar advertising whatsoever.”

Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said police officers will be visiting off-campus apartment complexes to talk with students about responsible behavior, and have already met with several fraternities, sororities and Student Government Association leaders to discuss preventative measures.

“Those have been very positive (meetings),” Livingstone said.

Following recommendations in the Davis report, the University has also implemented a modified guest policy for “Blarney” weekend.

Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Campus Life Enku Gelaye said last year staying on campus was an attraction for many guests and less than half of those arrested during the celebration were UMass students.

From Thursday, March 5 at 8 p.m. to Sunday, March 8 at 11 p.m., no outside guests will be allowed in UMass residence halls. Students will still be allowed to sign in a maximum of four UMass student guests.

UMass implemented a similar policy during Super Bowl XLIX weekend, banning all guests during game day. The post-game celebration that took place in the Southwest Residential Area was largely peaceful, with police observing students from the fringes.

University officials also monitored social media closely before the Super Bowl, a step Gelaye said is also being taken in preparation for “Blarney.”

“We’ve seen everything you’ve seen on social media sites,” she said, adding that administrators are engaging with certain students one on one about the “multi-dimensional” effects of their social media posts.

Gelaye said police and University officials will be “aggressively messaging” on social media March 7, but added, “The goal is to not get to that phase.”

Team Positive Presence, a student community policing initiative, will also be out encouraging responsible behavior during “Blarney.”

“I wouldn’t even call it community policing, I would call it community facilitating,” SGA President Vinayak Rao said.

When asked about police presence during “Blarney,” Livingstone said there would be “noticeably more” law enforcement officials present this year. This is due to a mutual aid pact between Amherst police, the UMass Police Department and the Massachusetts State Police, which was not in place last year.

Livingstone declined to discuss specific enforcement strategies, but said police will take lessons learned from this year’s Super Bowl celebration, during which police did not wear riot gear and were talkative and friendly with students.

“We will be having discussions from the get-go with students who may or may not show up,” he said.

UMPD Chief John Horvath added that while the dynamic differs between the two events, some strategies are transferrable.

Gelaye said that the University will be offering several on-campus activities March 7, including events in the dining halls and possibly an outdoor barbeque, weather permitting. The school is also trying to schedule a musical performance in the Mullins Center for that day.

Despite all of the town and University preparation, Gelaye said that students will be responsible for their behavior.

“Ultimately each student on the ground has to make good decisions,” she said.

Aviva Luttrell can be reached at aluttrel@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @AvivaLuttrell.

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