Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Increasing Outrage Over Student Disturbances

An increasing number of people in Amherst feel that the town is under assault: from bad student behavior, and from predatory landlords, who convert former single-family housing to student rentals, which in turn encourages bad student behavior, or at the least brings it into the heart of formerly stable residential neighborhoods.

It's no wonder. Every week, it seems, the newspapers and blogs bring reports of new outrages. The lead story in the print edition of the Bulletin this past week was "Rowdy partying unabated." Police Captain Christopher Pronovost's observation, "'It's not a good start' to the school year," was a masterful piece of understatement. "Young people" threw bottles at police attempting to break up out-of-control parties: in one case, overstretched public safety forces dispersed a crowd of over 1,000 frenzied fraternity folks and issued $ 9,600 in fines. In other incidents, "college-age" brawlers in a bar attacked police officers.  And, in the most alarming incident, because emergency vehicles were busy dealing with student disturbances, first responders had to scramble to find a means to assist an "unresponsive baby with difficulty breathing."

Clearly, things are getting out of control.

Responding to my previous piece on the unusually dirty and nonsensical Massachusetts senatorial campaign, one of my readers said that politicians should not expect a bed of roses. I of course agree. Still, some of the criticism being leveled at Town and University officials is ill-informed and off-target. It's wrong in principle and in point of fact, but more important: for that reason, it will not solve the problem.

The Amherst Bulletin cites contrarian former Planning Board member Denise Barberet as saying "This is getting the in-fill the master plan calls for, but not the type of in-fill and density people wanted." Um, no. None of this really has much anything to do with the Master Plan, which some of its supporters and critics alike still do not understand. (Full disclosure: I was the final chair of the committee that produced the Master Plan, so I think I have a pretty good idea of what it says.) Ironically, in fact, some of the people who are today complaining about the current housing and behavioral mess also two years ago opposed and defeated the crucial Development Modification Bylaw that would have been the first major application of the new Master Plan. It would have begun to put in place measures to deal with at least some of the problems that so exercise everyone today.

In a citizen editorial entitled, "Town officials need to get tough with landlords," resident Steve Bloom takes up an even broader brush, tarring in one stroke elected officials, Town staff, and the University. He likens Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe to a Polyanna and Planning Director Jonathan Tucker to a pedantic Emperor Nero (I've heard him called many things, but not this; it's silly, but at least printable), and asks (only rhetorically?) whether Ms. O'Keeffe would be willing to see "law-abiding, tax-paying, year-round residents with families [driven] out of Amherst until all that's left is a vast student slum of marginally maintained, unsupervised rentals." (Next time try decaf, perhaps?)

By contrast, another editorial, "Climate action stymied by neighborhood chaos," by the progressive trio of columnists Rob Crowner (current Planning Board member and a former member of the Master Plan committee), Steve Randall, and Larry Ely, stands out as by and large nuanced and constructive. As they correctly point out, residents' complaints are legitimate, but the complainers are in some cases firing on the wrong targets (in the olden days, we used to refer to this as false consciousness). As they put it, the generally progressive planning and zoning measures that we have in place are all the more needed in an age of "climate change." (Yes, that's their hobby-horse, but it is a valid point, and it's a convenient shorthand and means of focusing the mind on a variety of problems that can be subsumed under the heading of sustainability.) It is therefore wrong, they say, to attack the planning measures as such, rather than focusing both on enforcement and on—something that others, who unrealistically put all responsibility on the University leave out or refuse to contemplate—"where alternative housing serving the inevitable student population can be properly and safely integrated into the community."

I'll return to the planning and zoning questions in future posts, because they have come to be intertwined with questions of historic preservation. In the meantime, though, just a few more remarks about behavior and enforcement.

We in Town government certainly understand the frustration of many residents, which Mr. Bloom expressed:
We don't need anymore [sic] university-community breakfasts or student information sessions. What we need are simple, common-sense measures.
Expressed in those terms, that does sound silly. But it's a cheap shot. Studying moldy bread sounds silly; discovering penicillin does not.

Believe me: no one thinks those steps in themselves are the solutions to the problem. Rather, they are the prerequisite. The Town and the University have to work together to address the problems or they will fail together.

The strategy pursued by Town Manager John Musante, Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe, and our public safety officials was:
  1. to establish a better working relationship with the University,
  2. to convey to the University the seriousness with which we view the issue,
  3. to demonstrate that we are taking firm action against offenders, and 
  4. to give the University to understand that we expect it to do likewise. 
The purpose of all those "breakfasts" and "information sessions," then, was to send a message to administration, students, and residents about values and expectations. One way that the Town took matters seriously was by getting the University to apply its code of conduct to off-campus as well as residential students: something that is by no means a given in this country, though it is growing in appeal (1, 2). The University now better and regularly communicates its expectations to students. But obviously, expectations have to be enforced as well as expressed.

Following some vandalism in town last spring around graduation time, I happened to have a conversation with one of our police officers. He thought that things were improving precisely because the authorities had made clear they were treating antisocial and criminal behavior with great seriousness. The students were feeling the bite of the $ 300 fines (the state maximum) for nuisance and alcohol violations, but perhaps more important, they knew that the University would call them in and hold them accountable (the latter also seemed to make a stronger impression than a mere fine when it came to dealing with mom and dad).

At last week's Select Board meeting, we heard from Town Manager John Musante and Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe about ongoing town-gown cooperation and intensified efforts in enforcement, as reflected in a new report from the police. The document compared summons and arrest figures for the beginning of the academic years 2011 and 2012. This year's figures showed a marked uptick.

Amherst Police Department Selected Violations & Under 21 YOA 
Selected Violations Beginning of Semester to Present 2011 to 2012 Comparison 

Total Summons: 

2011: 36 
2012: 107 
% Change: +197% 

Total Arrests 

2011: 52 
2012: 67 
% Change: +29% 

Total Charged Under Both Summons and Arrest: 

2011: 88 
2012: 174 
% Change: +98% 

Summons in all categories at least doubled, while nuisance house citations increased by a whopping 900% (new regulations went into effect). There were fewer changes among arrests because they are, obviously, reserved for the more serious infractions, such as operating motor vehicles under the influence of alcohol.

As we noted on Monday night, statistics need to be interpreted. To some, the marked increase in summonses and arrests signals a much more serious situation. It well may. But it also reflects a much more serious approach to enforcement. Over the course of the next few years, when we can compare figures over a larger time span, we will have a clearer picture.

What's the takeaway?

Seen from one perspective, the town is becoming fatally polarized. Seen from another, there is actually a fairly broad range of agreement:
  1. There is a real problem of student behavior.
  2. It is related but not confined to housing issues; 
  3. Residents, government, public safety officers, and University administration agree on the need for action.
  4. We can start to address the problem by enforcing existing regulations on both behavior and housing.
The problems facing the town are real, and they are serious. If we expect to address them, we will need to do so together. I would therefore hope that residents will start from that common ground of agreement and credit town government with both good will and good sense. We're all in this together, and we need your support.

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