Increased fines, education outreach aimed at curbing weekend disturbances

By Aviva Luttrell

Donna Van Boom will never forget her first night living on Fearing Street.

“When I went to bed, I was awoken by screaming and shouting. I thought, ‘Oh my god, what’s happening?’ It sounded like someone was being murdered,” she said.

Evan Sahagian/Collegian

Although Van Boom initially didn’t know what to make of the commotion, she soon came to realize what was happening. “Is this what they meant by the students being a problem here?” she asked herself.

That night was nearly 10 years ago, but not much has changed since then.

“(It was) a very mild evening, as it turns out,” she said.

As the end of the semester approaches and the Valley’s weather gets warmer, the Town of Amherst, along with some University of Massachusetts administrators and staff, are preparing for a hike in the number of off-campus parties with an increase in police presence, admonitory emails to students and efforts to redirect student foot traffic away from residential neighborhoods.

What may seem like a fun night out for some UMass students often has direct and adverse implications for families living on the borders of campus, causing long-standing conflict between these two groups. Some neighbors say they don’t see an easy resolution.

Marilyn Smith of Allen Street said that she has to call the police between three and four times a weekend due to disruptive student behavior.

“It’s out of control,” Smith said.

Noise, litter and public urination have been the main concerns expressed by residents who live in high-traffic areas, according to Stephanie O’Keeffe, chair of the Amherst Select Board.

For years, Amherst residents, members of the University and Town of Amherst officials have been working to address these kinds of behaviors. UMass’ Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce High-Risk Drinking (CCC), an organization comprised of both members of the University and town officials, has introduced new bylaws in recent years in an attempt to combat the issue.

In 2008, the Nuisance House bylaw was passed. According to O’Keeffe, significant disturbances – particularly parties involving underage drinking – constitute operating a nuisance house. Violations carry a $300 fine and landlords are fined after the third violation.

The town also increased fines to $300 – the maximum penalty allowed under state law – for violating bylaws regulating noise, unregistered kegs and open containers.

In addition to stricter disciplinary measures, officials are striving to educate students about the effects of loud parties on area residents, according to O’Keeffe. Efforts involve outreach from the University not only to students living off-campus, but also to those on-campus students traveling via residential streets on their way to parties or downtown’s bar-lined strip.

Attempts to educate students on these issues begin with discussions at New Student Orientation (NSO), before students’ freshman year. Every new crop of freshmen means a new set of students to educate and inform, so it’s an on-going process, according to O’Keeffe.

These messages are also reinforced through different means.

In a recent campus-wide email, Student Government Association President Akshay Kapoor wrote that students should remember that “we live among families just like ours at home, with children, the elderly, and residents who are not necessarily UMass affiliated, so it is important to be respectful.”

Kapoor said that although the University and the town have had a strained relationship in the past, they’ve been working collaboratively to try and mend that connection. For UMass and the town, the formation of the CCC – which Kapoor says he is an active member of – has been one way of working toward a better relationship.

“We are trying to work on as many initiatives as possible,” Kapoor said.

One such effort, known as “Walk this Way,“ aims to redirect weekend partygoers from cutting through residential neighborhoods. The initiative, launched April 5, uses signs and volunteers to point students away from Fearing Street and toward a different route back to campus. The Baby Berk food truck will be stationed along the way in hopes of enticing hungry students with discounts and prizes.

Smith hopes these efforts are successful. She has lived in the same house since 1991, and she said she’s the last non-student resident left on Allen Street. She added that every daytime interaction she’s had with her student neighbors has been “pleasant” and “courteous,” and cited the rowdy students traveling to and from parties as the cause of the problem.

“A lot of it has to do with alcohol,” Van Boom said. “When people drink too much, they do things they’d never do.”

O’Keeffe echoed Van Boom, saying, “Somebody who wouldn’t dream of screaming as they walk down the street – suddenly their inhibitions are gone.”

This sort of binge drinking is not just a campus problem, “it’s a cultural problem,” O’Keeffe added.

The CCC has been working to address the issue of alcohol-fueled behavior by conducting alcohol studies on campus. According to O’Keeffe, data shows that binge drinking rates are going down, but she said that the problem will never disappear entirely.

Van Boom was involved in a Fearing Street neighborhood program for a year and said the group has tried just about everything to alleviate the weekend disturbances.

“We haven’t been able to do anything to change it,” she said.

She recalled one weekend when her neighbor set up a card table on the front lawn and handed out cookies to students passing by throughout the night.

“She just wanted to, in a friendly way, say, ‘perhaps you don’t know this, but this is a neighborhood and we have small children. We’d like any help you can give us in trying to reach a resolution,’” Van Boom said.

However, such neighborhood efforts have proved to be ineffective, Van Boom said.

Though things have not significantly improved, O’Keeffe said, “what we’ve found is vastly few repeat offenders,” adding that “the Dean of Students’ office tells us that the $300 dollar fines are very effective,.”

O’Keeffe believes that change will happen only when students develop awareness for themselves and have a personal stake in the matter.

“It can’t come from the top down,” she said. “There needs to be a peer-to-peer awareness and pressure that this is not fun, this is not OK.”

“As part of the campus community, you’re part of the greater Amherst community,” O’Keeffe added.

An agreement between town and University officials last month detailed an upgrade to public safety measures for the remainder of the semester, including $40,000 worth of funds from UMass to the Town of Amherst for additional ambulance service as well as increased weekend staff and patrols.

Aviva Luttrell can be reached at [email protected]. Araz Havan can be reached at [email protected]