Wild Weekend

 

In 2008, the town manager of Mansfield noted that the University of Connecticut community was “extremely fortunate” not to have “witnessed a fatality” during the college’s notorious annual bacchanal known as Spring Weekend.

A year ago, with the death in a fistfight of junior Jafar Karzoun, 20, that all changed.

“It certainly brought home the concern and made more real and tangible the risks to the campus community,” says John Saddlemire, UConn’s vice president for student affairs. “This was an act of violence by a nonstudent to a student, but we can’t just say it was by an outsider. We have to take responsibility.”

Now after months of study, a task force of university, police and Mansfield officials has called for a “voluntary moratorium” on this month’s Spring Weekend 2011. In addition, it has imposed tough restrictions on the presence of nonstudents, who make up the vast majority of those arrested each year. Officials hope the moratorium will be embraced by students out of respect for Karzoun and for former football player Jasper Howard, as well, who was stabbed to death (also by a nonstudent) in November 2009 during a campus scuffle. They especially hope the new rules are observed by the 27 percent of students who live off-campus and whose parties in nearby apartment complexes attract thousands of students and nonstudents each year. 

There will be no sanctioned campus activities for the weekend of April 21-24—no concerts, no late-night movies, no eating events and no oozeball tournaments, where a ball game is played in a foot of mud. There will be a complete prohibition on guests in dormitories, where students are normally allowed two overnight guests at one time for up to three nights. The ban on overnight guests is based on data showing that in 2010 between 6,000 and 7,000 “guests” stayed with friends on campus.

“The guests played a major role in contributing to the extraordinary volume of the Spring Weekend gatherings, making them more difficult to manage and increasing the risks associated with them,” the task force report said.  

Officials know that a voluntary moratorium on off-campus gatherings is not likely to succeed entirely (even on Easter weekend). What has them concerned, however, is a possible backlash or demonstration against the moratorium.

The warning of a backlash was sounded during a December student government-sponsored forum on Spring Weekend by Jason Ortiz, a senior student activist who had run unsuccessfully on the Green Party ticket for state representative from the 54th district (Mansfield and Chaplin) in November. “It is not physically possible to have enough police to block Spring Weekend,” he cautioned. “But there are certain things we can address—the violence, the big mess on campus. We need people trained in [dealing with] hostility and cleaning up. Adding more police or fire is not the answer. More police will just make things worse. It’s more important to look at how to control the violence.”

 

To some degree, the task force concurs, even while calling the weekend “unwanted, expensive and dangerous” and “a magnet for toxic behavior and criminality.” “If there was a practical way to end Spring Weekend, the university would have eagerly implemented it years ago,” its report states. “The fact remains that thousands of individuals are going to attempt to gather for Spring Weekend, whether the university wants them to or not.” Too aggressive a response against the festivities, it concludes, could “trigger . . . angry, violent, ugly confrontations” and could increase the possibility of weapons being brought on campus.

Saddlemire says university officials are well aware that by ruling out Spring Weekend activities on campus this year, they may be  throwing down a gauntlet that will actually intensify activities off-campus. But, he says, “our hope is that it is not seen as a challenge, but more as a humane, genuine request in response to two student deaths due to violence.”      

UConn’s Spring Weekend started in the early 1970s, when the drinking age was 18 and alcohol flowed freely on the nation’s college campuses. At UConn, it was first characterized by dorm dinners, charity events, relay races and the like, and it culminated in a large outdoor concert on a hill off of Route 195. Tower of Power and other big acts entertained in the late 1970s, and then the concert switched to Memorial Stadium, where the football team played, with Stevie Ray Vaughn, Little Feat and Living Colour among the featured artists.

In the 1980s, Spring Weekend began to sour, and in 1984 the first real police confrontations took place, partially in response to the renewed 21-year-old-drinking-age law. It wasn’t until Spring Weekend 1998, however, when tougher on-campus drinking laws were put into place, that things really turned ugly. Thousands of rioting students threw rocks and bottles at state police, who responded with dogs and pepper spray. Students also burned couches and other university property, with damage estimates in the thousands of dollars. Eighty-seven people were arrested, the vast majority of them nonstudents charged with underage drinking and minor violence.

By now, the pattern of off-campus Spring Weekend celebrations is essentially unchanging. Beginning on Thursday night, large groups of young people walk the half-mile from campus down North Eagleville Road to Hunting Lodge Road for the massive parties at Carriage House Apartments (Thursday) and Celeron Square apartments (Friday). On Saturday, the scene usually shifts to so-called X-lot, a privately owned parking lot adjacent to the campus, which the university has tried to buy. Public safety officials report that in recent years crowds as large as 15,000 attended the off-campus parties and that about 100 arrests are made by local police each year for underage drinking, public drunkenness, fights and other incidents. State police say that last year they made an additional 19 arrests for similar incidents, and issued tickets for about 75 motor vehicle violations.     

Mansfield officials (Storrs is located within the town of Mansfield) have monitored Spring Weekend activities for years. In recent years, they have taken a more proactive role in curbing offenses, particularly those associated with trashed neighborhoods, excessive noise and alcohol abuses. Along with state police, the town has set up vehicle checkpoints around campus, limited some roads to pedestrians, banned alcohol in open bottles, cups and glasses, restricted noise from outdoor parties and worked with landlords to scrutinize nonresident guests. Currently under review is an ordinance that would require permits for “mass assemblies,” such as the thousands of students who gather at X-lot. The town is also working on a “nuisance ordinance” that would attach automatic fines to behaviors such as fights, demonstrations and loud gatherings, even for first-time offenders.

“Enforcement will be the challenge,” says Mansfield Town Manager Matthew Hart. He says that Spring Weekend is difficult to patrol, even with nine full-time resident state troopers and three part-time constables on duty. He estimates the town averages about $30,000 a year in overtime and other personnel costs associated with the weekend, while state police log at least $100,000 a year in extra Spring Weekend costs, a figure similar to UConn campus-police estimates.

Hart says he supports the moratorium this year but the “long term” is a more critical issue. He says that in some ways the town’s hands are tied because it is forced to be “reactive” to events despite careful planning. This year, he hopes the student government will get behind the moratorium and send the word to outsiders looking for a party that there is nothing going on in Storrs that weekend.

 

Student reaction to the new rules has been mixed. The Daily Campus student newspaper editorialized that the prohibition of overnight guests in dorms will only produce resentment and punishes a few at the expense of many. Instead, it said more stringent regulations on identification should be imposed. The paper also said that cancelling the few on-campus events will only encourage off-campus partying since students will have no place else to go. In various news articles seeking student reaction, it seems that while the moratorium has largely been accepted, many are skeptical about whether it will keep the thousands of nonstudents from showing up.

The director of UConn student health services, Michael Kurland, spends most of Spring Weekend treating medical cases in triage tents.  Kurland, who has held his post for 22 years, says that in recent years he has seen a decrease in the number and seriousness of injuries but not “in the level of intensity of intoxication problems.” Part of the decrease in injuries, he says, may be due to “better policing.” 

Kurland says Mansfield emergency personnel deal with these issues on Thursday and Friday nights when the off-campus parties are raging. On Saturday, when the scene shifts to the parking lot, he and his team are also on duty. “I spend the majority of my time in medical-care mode rather than prevention mode,” he says. Typical problems include lacerations from broken bottles, injuries from fights and alcohol poisoning.  “X-lot is glistening with broken bottles everywhere,” he notes, even though the student government gives out plastic cups and the town prohibits drinking out of open receptacles.       

Alcohol and various types of partying have contributed to the deaths of three UConn students in less than four years. On Jan. 22, 2007, freshman Carlee Wines, a 19-year-old from Manalapan, N.J., died from injuries sustained two days earlier when she was hit by a car in a crosswalk on North Eagleville Road, driven by a St. Bonaventure student visiting Storrs. The driver, Anthony Alvino, 18 at the time, of Lindenhurst, N.Y., his two college friends and one UConn student had been drinking alcohol in a UConn dorm. Alvino, who fled the scene before turning himself in to UConn police nearly a month later, is currently serving 37 months for a number of motor-vehicle and alcohol-related convictions. Others involved in the evening’s activities that led to Wines’ death received various rehabilitation and probation sentences for their parts in securing and distributing alcohol and urging Alvino to leave the scene. But to students who’ve entered UConn since then, “the death of Carlee Wines is ancient history,” Saddlemire says. “It will be seen as a historical event to the freshman class.”

Next came the death of football player Jasper Howard, who was stabbed in October 2009, during a melée outside the Student Union building after a dance. In January 2011, John W. Lomax III, 22, of Bloomfield, who is not a student, pled no contest to first-degree manslaughter and faces up to 20 years in prison. Another Bloomfield man, Hakim Muhammad, charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree assault and intimidating a witness, is awaiting trial.

In the Karzoun case of last year, the trial of Edi Rapo, a 19-year-old East Hartford man arrested on charges of second-degree manslaughter and forgery for carrying a fake ID, was to begin in late February. At the time of the incident, Rapo was a student at Manchester Community College. It is alleged that early on the morning April 23, 2010, Rapo punched Karzoun, who fell to the ground and hit his head on a brick walkway.

He died nine days later at Hartford Hospital. In January, a lawyer representing the Karzoun family filed notice of intent to sue the university of failing to protect him during Spring Weekend, claiming that although university police were aware of problems associated with it, they took no action to curb or end it though they knew it would be attended by a large number of outsiders.

The deaths deeply shook the campus community, including then university President Michael Hogan. One of his last acts  before accepting the position of president of the University of Illinois last May was to establish the task force that has now called for a moratorium on this year’s Spring Weekend.     

 

Most U.S. residential colleges and universities have some sort of spring ritual to mark the end of the semester, prior to the start of final exams. Colleges large and small have wrestled with the issue of drinking and outsiders coming in to contribute to alcohol abuse and, in some cases, violence.

A seminal study on college drinking, conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, surveyed 50,000 college students on 120 campuses from 1993 to 2001, and found that schools with the fewest problems had comprehensive state laws on underage drinking as well as strong enforcement procedures in place, fewer establishments selling alcohol near campus and laws limiting high-volume sales events, such as happy hours. In other words, the culture and environment on and off campus in terms of availability and access were significant factors in the amount of college drinking.  

UConn is not a dry campus, although making it completely dry has been considered. The Student Conduct Code presently allows alcohol, with a permit, in private places, such as dorm rooms but prohibits it in all public areas such as dorm lounges, study areas and the like. In 2003, a university committee rejected banning alcohol on campus because of fears that such an action would lead to even more off-campus partying, especially by underage students. The committee chairman even went so far as to say that “students are arriving at UConn with well-established drinking patterns and a feeling that they have a right to drink. A ban would probably not solve the problem.’’

Other New England land-grant universities similar in size and composition to UConn have also been wrestling with the issue of off-campus partying. In 2000, officials at the University of New Hampshire in Durham enacted a moratorium on what had been a campus-wide Spring Fling at the end of the school year. The problems had included parties at off-campus fraternity houses and apartment complexes, which led to arrests for alcohol and drug abuse as well as occasional violence.

Then, after a decade without any campus-sponsored events, two years ago officials created May Day, a campus-wide carnival in which the community is encouraged to participate.

According to MaryAnne Lustgraaf, director of the campus hub Memorial Union Building, there has been a steady decline in arrests. The most significant reason, she says, is an agreement by the Durham Landlord Association to impose strict regulations on partying on their properties, including fines for abuses, limiting the number of people who can congregate in or around a unit and requiring that parents of students enter into contracts (along with their offspring) to abide by the regulations. Some landlords did not cooperate, and off-campus parties can still pose problems, mainly from nonstudents “who wander the streets of Durham looking for a party,” Lustgraaf says. 

At the University of Massachusetts, similar measures, including a $300 fine for a first offense, have led to fewer problems, although exceptions certainly occur. “On certain weekends, all hands are on deck,” says Stephanie O’Keeffe, chair of the Campus and Community Coalition, and even then there are still alcohol- and nuisance-related arrests in off-campus housing areas. Last September, crowds leaving a concert  at Mullins Center on campus threw rocks, bottles and cans at police in riot gear in North Amherst  neighborhoods. In Amherst, “it is definitely an issue with outsiders and we are trying to deal with this,” O’Keeffe says. 

“For me,” says Saddlemire, “the question still remains: ‘What is the draw?’ There is no music, no entertainment. It has developed into a culture—it has become ‘an event.’ People want to say they’ve been to Spring Weekend,” especially freshmen and sophomores, he says, referring to surveys that indicate that by the time they’ve reached the legal drinking age, students lose interest.  

And so UConn officials play a waiting game, hoping the combination of the moratorium and Easter limits attendance, outdoor partying, and in general cuts down on the widespread mayhem that has become Spring Weekend.

“We’re not assuming the moratorium will stop them,” Saddlemire says, referring especially to outside partiers. “But with three lives lost to violence, can we step back and have a celebration without having to feel there is danger? The goal is to get where we can have an end-of-the-year event that is student centered and does not draw so many people from outside.” By banning so many events and establishing strict visitor rules on campus this year, “we hope to do as much as we can to make outsiders feel it’s more of a hassle than it’s worth.”

Wild Weekend

Reader Comments

comments powered by Disqus
 
ADVERTISEMENT