Orchard Hill balconies permanently locked

By Patricia Leboeuf

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)
(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

Following two student deaths this past year resulting from falls, the University of Massachusetts has closed 43 of the 44 balconies attached to lounges in Orchard Hill residential area. The lounges adjoining the 43 closed balconies have been opened, according to University spokesman Ed Blaguszewski.

On Feb. 20, residents of the area awoke to find that student lounges above the first-floor level were locked and inaccessible.

“It did kind of surprise me that they locked them,” said Emily Saunders, a freshman on the education exploratory track who lives in Dickinson Hall. “As far as I know, no one was (even) doing anything wrong in the lounges.”

“We were a little angry because it was during midterms, and a lot of students were coming to us with no place to study,” said Tristan Laliberte, residence area governor of Orchard Hill and freshman political science major.

On Feb. 23, Orchard Hill student government representatives emailed a letter about their concerns to Enku Gelaye, vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life, and Jean MacKimmie, director of residence education.

All four area senators – Derek Dunlea, Nicholas Goetz, Ryan Mahan and Clare McGladrigan – along with Lieutenant Governor Phil Cross, treasurer Michael Connors, secretary Edvin Figueroa and Laliberte, signed the letter.

They were invited to a meeting in late February with Gelaye through Student Government Association President Sïonan Barrett, immediately after the letter was sent, according to an email from Laliberte to the Massachusetts Daily Collegian.

“(Students) wanted to know what they could do to get the balconies back,” Laliberte said. “People always go out on the balconies when they want fresh air after studying.”

Laliberte added: “We just wondered what we could really go back to students with.”

At the meeting were Gelaye, Laliberte, Mahan, Barrett and Chantal Lima Barbosa, vice president of SGA, said Laliberte.

Barrett and Barbosa were present for their weekly one-on-one meeting with Gelaye, said Mahan, a freshman computer science major.

According to Gelaye, the lounges would be unlocked as soon as possible.

“(Gelaye) just said they had to lock the lounges for the maintenance on the balconies, and that (it) was for student safety,” Laliberte said.

Gelaye said the reasoning for this decision was being kept confidential, according to Laliberte.

“She said that the reason was confidential, but (we) should tell (our) residents that it was to perform maintenance regarding student safety,” Mahan said. “She told us that it was confidential, so we took that as, like, we should keep it confidential as well.”

Mahan said Gelaye informed them why the reasoning was confidential at their request.

In an email, Mahan said he could not confirm whether Gelaye’s explanation of why the reason for the decision was confidential related to concerns for student safety following the deaths of two UMass students from falls.

Student access to roofs and balconies became an increased priority for the University after the pair of student deaths, Blaguszewski said in an email to the Daily Collegian. Connor Cummings, 20, died on Dec. 30, 2015 after a fall from a New York City hotel, and James Tilley, 21, died Feb. 5 after a fall from Hasbrouck Laboratory on campus.

“Given the significant public attention and media coverage that followed, Gelaye and the student affairs staff became concerned about vulnerable students who might be affected,” Blaguszewski said in the statement.

Blaguszewski compared the measure to the building of fences around bridges.

Whether students go to these areas for fun, or because they feel despondent, tragic things can happen, he said.

“(We want to) do the best we can to restrict access to places (that) could lead to tragedy,” he said.

Orchard Hill resident assistants and senior staff were emailed on Feb. 20 notifying them of the decision to lock the lounges during the process of permanently closing the balconies, according to a copy of the email.

Orchard Hill residents were then emailed Feb. 25 about the permanent closing of the balconies, Blaguszewski said.

The University’s review of roofs and balconies after the deaths of Cummings and Tilley identified access to balconies in Orchard Hill as a concern. The adjacent lounges were closed to prevent access to the balconies at the direction of Gelaye, he said in the statement.

As of March 4, permanent or temporary measures have been completed to prevent access to 43 out of 44 balconies, and the adjoining lounges have been opened. The staff is waiting on parts needed to complete work on the remaining balcony, according to the statement.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Leboeuf_Tricia.