UMatter at UMass campaign tackling problem of alcohol and drug abuse

By Anthony Rentsch

(Cade Belisle/ Daily Collegian)
(Cade Belisle/ Daily Collegian)

With the results of last spring’s “Blarney Blowout” fresh in the minds of many in the University of Massachusetts community, the UMatter at UMass campaign has shifted its focus toward preventing alcohol and drug abuse on campus.

UMatter at UMass is what Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Enku Gelaye calls an “environmental campaign.” The initiative “highlights cultural values which are important to the University,” she said, namely caring, compassion and active engagement. The campaign aims to apply these values to address important issues regarding students’ standards of living, such as harassment, sexual assault, alcohol and drug use and mental health.

Last year, the campaign was centered on sexual assault, an initiative that included videos and advertisements on PVTA buses to promote awareness.

This year, in order to address the issue of alcohol and drug use, the campaign took strides to increase the presence and effectiveness of student bystanders in alcohol and drug abuse situations. Gelaye plans to use student cohorts at large-scale events to be “on ground” quasi-police.

Instead of being there to apprehend students who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, these cohorts act as an intervening force that can step in if they observe a situation where a student is in distress, and serve as a resource that students can feel comfortable approaching if they are unsure of how to handle a situation.

Lindsey Magri, a junior at the University, believes this student policing practice can be useful.

“I think that a lot of students are afraid to contact cops because they are afraid of getting in trouble,” Magri said. “With a student, they will be more willing to cooperate. There is more trust when someone our age talks to us.”

Magri, who attended last semester’s “Blarney Blowout,” said she believes student cohorts would have been effective in reducing some of the violence during the St. Patrick’s Day event.

This type of student policing is not a new phenomenon. In fact, similar student cohorts were utilized last year at a rally to support UMass men’s basketball player Derrick Gordon to make sure that both student and Westboro Baptists Church protestors remained safe.

Gelaye also mentioned the “Walk This Way” initiative as another “student-active bystander group.” Directed by the Off Campus Student Center, “Walk This Way” hires students to stand on street corners near Fearing Street from 11 p.m. until 2 a.m. on weekend nights to intervene if they notice a situation where a student needs assistance. This also helps to ensure that UMass students are being respectful of the surrounding neighborhoods.

At the Homecoming tailgate Saturday, student volunteers assumed the responsibility of an on-the-ground police corps. Because there was a lack of a full-blown incident, Homecoming was considered a success for the student cohort.

In addition to the student policing system, UMatter at UMass is also raising awareness about a drug and alcohol use-related policy change.

In years past, Gelaye said the University’s policy was unclear when it came to whether or not a student would be punished for helping a friend who was under the influence.

After calls from students requesting a clarification of this rule, the University instituted a Medical Amnesty Policy, which states that reporting a “friend who is drunk and needs medical attention” will not result in a Code of Student Conduct violation for either person, according to the UMatter at UMass website.

While the issues of alcohol and sexual assault will still be a large part of the campaign’s mission in the years to come, Gelaye said that the campaign plans to expand its reach to new issues every year based on results of student surveys.

Anthony Rentsch can be reached at [email protected]