Keeping the Peace

The encounters that Sam Houston State University (SHSU) Police Officer Kevin Hansford regularly has with students letting off steam at the Huntsville, TX-based school are likely to ring a bell on other campuses. The Houstonian, the independent student newspaper of SHSU, earlier this year detailed a typical shift for Hansford, and he recently shared with College Planning & Management how he handles good-natured student celebrations when they escalate into trouble.

“Most student celebrations these days are taking place off campus at house parties and they can quickly get out of hand,” he says. “When crowds appear and disturbance/loud noise complaints come in, I’ve been known to park my car a block or two away from the immediate scene, and walk toward the call while making contact with students along the way.” It’s a point that Hansford returns to: Making a direct connection with campus revellers.

It’s a personal one-on-one aspect that, along with broad-based foresight and planning, can help to peacefully diffuse potentially serious situations. Campuses are considering their options and taking action.

Party Planning
In fact, “we’ve noticed a trend toward universities taking a proactive approach to discourage large-scale parties, which can lead to violence and property damage,” says Paul V. Verrecchia, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA). He cites recent examples on two campuses that have been dealing with rowdy situations for some time.

At the University of Connecticut in Storrs, local reports credit a heightened police presence and new restrictions on campus access as reasons for Spring Weekend celebrations in 2011 and 2012 being notably more peaceful than in some previous years. In 2009, for example, 100 arrests were made during the bash, according to a local report, and students have complained that rowdy partiers who are not students have caused many problems in the past. One step: A no-visitors rule during the party weekend. Word went out in advance, with internal and external messages by UConn’s administration that “warned non-students to stay away” from the University. “It worked as there were no serious incidents on the campus,” Verrecchia notes.

At Ohio University (OU) in Athens, 80 students reportedly were arrested after party-related disturbances at the campus’ annual Palmerfest in late April. OU President Roderick McDavis; police, fire, and student representatives; and Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl met after the rowdy outbursts to seek solutions. As McDavis mentioned on a local news report, images of such incidents almost immediately appear on YouTube — and “going viral” spreads negative perceptions about colleges and universities. By extension, such online exposure could attract some rowdy partiers.

Incidents like this anywhere they occur can also impact university-community relations; although in the case of OU, the campus and municipal officials were at a town hall meeting to discuss ways to avoid such problems in the future. Yet, as unfortunate as the recent disturbances have been, the fact that they have spurred quests for collaborative responses is a positive sign.

Consider Collaboration
Verrecchia shared some insights with College Planning & Management about ways to deal with such incidents. He says a key is collaboration “between appropriate campus offices, such as student activities, the student conduct office, public affairs, campus police and security, the president’s office,” and others. “Basically, it has to be an institution-wide effort, not just a police effort,” he says.

Pre-planning is another key, according to Verrecchia, who recommends that campuses meet with event organizers and student groups “to plan for the security that will be needed and discuss other logistical considerations.” He says university officials “must be able to gather information on the nature of the event, food and beverage, access by the general public,” and other aspects. In Verrecchia’s view, “it’s no different than the planning that campus police agencies do at major Division I athletic programs for football games.”

Not every event is planned. Spontaneous celebrations happen. Verrecchia acknowledges that such occurrences “make the job of the police much tougher because they have not had the opportunity to put in place staff, EMS, and other measures.” Still, proactively anticipating possible events can only pay dividends. “In some instances,” he adds, “universities work with local officials in advance when they know one of their athletic teams has a chance to win a national championship,” for example. One measure that could be put in place: A limit on local alcohol sales.

“Student Party Riots,” a 2006 report by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing report for the U.S. Department of Justice, detailed various suggestions for campuses. Among them: creating a multiagency task force with members from the community and campus. The report’s authors, Tamara Madensen and John E. Eck, wrote that in addition to expected college administrators and campus and local police, such task forces could also include student groups, local residents, businesses, and landlords. The point is to get more participants involved in helping police.

Communicate With 
Everyone Involved

Among a number of other suggestions in the report: “requiring students to get a permit to host a gathering, assigning police officers as advisors to hosts of gatherings, increasing the consequences of rioting and educating students about the penalties, [and] asking students to participate in student patrols.” In some instances, local police notify a university when a student has been arrested “so that the university may take further disciplinary action,” the report states. Simple steps such as door hangers in campus residence halls, notifying students of alcohol laws, can also make a difference.

Back at Sam Houston State, “almost every Thursday and Saturday” during the latter half of the spring semester tend to be party days, in addition to the days after finals and around final exams. This is the period when “students tend to celebrate like professional rock stars,” Hansford says. So it goes on many campuses.

Yet, colleges and universities can make a positive difference by having detailed plans and policies in place, working with members of the campus and surrounding communities, and identifying potential flare-ups. All can work hand-in-hand with those one-on-one interactions between campus and local police and young partiers, which Hansford adds, tend to 
work when there’s “a healthy dose of 
firm honesty, sympathy, professionalism, and reality.” 

Scott Berman is a freelance writer with experience in educational topics.