Many students have perceived a dramatic increase in the number of parties shut down for noise complaints, overcrowding, the presence of alcohol and various other reasons this year over previous years, but according to John Carter, Chief of the Amherst College Police, this perception is not supported by the facts. Only four more student gatherings were shut down this year compared to the same time period (July to April) last year, an increase from 142 to 146. In fact, disturbances have been significantly reduced from a recent high during the 2008-2009 academic year, in which there were 184 noise complaints served during the same period, Carter said.
Why then have students complained of an increase in police enforcement?
One explanation might be the change in the location of parties on campus, as renovations and policy changes have pushed parties from dorms on the Hill and the Triangle into the Socials. One senior, Aaron Lemle, remembers his visit to the College as a pre-frosh, and contrasts it with the party scene he sees at the College today, saying that he had “nightmares” about returning to the Socials after his semester abroad.
“I visited Amherst as a pre-frosh, and I had a friend who was a grade above me in high school, and he took me to parties around campus. First we went to a party in King, then he took me to a frat that no longer exists, then to Marsh, and as a pre-frosh I was really excited. I though there were a lot of different venues for parties, a lot of different kinds of people at these places, and it all seemed very open and like a fun social environment. Already, though, by the time I was a sophomore all of those venues had been closed, except for Marsh, as well as Hitchcock. I think by shutting these spaces down it forces the party scene into the Socials, which are dark and very packed, so I find it very frustrating,” Lemle said.
This shift in the party culture has concerned other students as well, including Liya Rechtman ’14, an Association of Amherst Students (AAS) Senator and student member of the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct (SMOC), who thinks the Socials are a dangerous location for parties because of their suite-style layout, which she says is more conducive for sexual assault. Rechtman blames this shift on College policies, which she says drives parties from open spaces like the Hill or the Triangle into the Socials.
“The College shuts down parties in the places that are easiest to shut down parties. Marsh is a big open space; it’s well-lit; and it’s very clear who the chain of command is for the dorm — it’s the RC — it’s the same for the Zu. It’s really easy to shut down parties in those dorms as opposed to the Socials, where people are wandering around in the hallways; there are a lot of corners; it’s much more cumbersome to figure out the chain of command; the RCs have a much more tenuous relationship with the residents; it’s harder to enforce anything at all; and it’s unclear what is private and public space,” Rechtman said.
“All of those ambiguities and spatial constructions are what lead to sexual assault. The inability of police to enforce certain standards of behavior in the Socials like alcohol means that they are also less able to enforce socio-legal boundaries like sexual respect.”
Rechtman said that this issue should have been dealt with when the College was confronting the sexual misconduct crisis in the fall, pointing out that other schools have pioneered models of enforcement that allow for both more regulation of student behavior and more freedom for students by bringing parties and drinking out into the open.
“I am so deeply baffled and disappointed in the administration’s lack of appropriate, effective or efficient action in response to the conversations that I have been trying to start about alcohol and other drugs, on a wide variety of levels, not just the spaces where the alcohol policy is enforced, but also the drugs that are enforced more or less harshly. It’s unclear to me why the administration hasn’t done more in that respect; the Oversight Committee did look at schools with other models,” Rechtman said. “Bowdoin, for example, has a model that is basically open beer, no hard liquor, which makes sense to me as a model. The idea is that the more you allow, the more you can regulate, and where you can regulate you can keep students away from doing very dangerous things like assaulting each other, hurting themselves, developing problems with alcohol abuse. A lot of variety of problems occur that have to do with alcohol, and the response to them should not be to push alcohol into a completely unregulated, outlawed field in which people feel like once they’re already in that space, then all bets are off. The thing to do with alcohol is regulate it.”
Other students have proposed modeling the College’s drinking policy on Harvard Univ. or Yale Univ., which have more lenient policies focused more on ensuring safety than stopping underage drinking, leading to far less disciplinary action for alcohol and other drugs. For instance, in 2011, the College had 157 disciplinary referrals for liquor violations, while Yale Univ. only had 13, despite being a much larger institution than the College. However, according to Chief Carter, both Harvard Univ. and Yale Univ. have robust Residential Life programs with live-in professional staff that enforce university policy in dormitories and only use police as a last resort, allowing for more discretion; in contrast, the College has no similar enforcement mechanisms in place, meaning that it has to rely on campus police to maintain order and safety in dormitories. While a House Master can turn a blind eye to underage drinking, campus police cannot ignore illegal activity. Nevertheless, Chief Carter said, police at the College are far more lenient than their counterparts in town or at the Univ. of Massachusetts.
“The priority of the department is always the preservation of life and safety. Therefore, things like medicals, fire alarms and crimes in progress get priority over all else. The maintenance of order and peace comes next, and that means answering disturbance calls, noise complaints, etc. This tends to blend into the enforcement of the college’s policies on parties and alcohol. However, it is generally more our intent to restore peace (i.e. end a disturbance or party) than identification of every underage drinker at an event. The rest of the time is spent engaging in activities that promote a safe environment, which does include patrolling the residence areas, enforcing the laws of the Commonwealth and the enforcement of the college’s rules. Our police officers show incredible tolerance and patience in situations in which Amherst or UMass police would go quickly to an arrest solution,” Carter said.
Recently, there have been efforts made by administrators to help residents of the Socials better manage the party scene on weekend nights and prevent safety infractions like crowded stairwells and dancing on windows. Dean of Student Conduct Susie Mitton Shannon has been advising residents who meet with her for policy violations to maintain awareness of the number of party-goers in their suites and turn away newcomers if the space is full, as well as suggesting that place speakers in front of the windows to discourage partiers from dancing on the windowsills. These measures are meant to encourage students to take responsibility for what happens in their residences, according to Dean Mitton Shannon. Additionally, she and other members of the Alcohol and Drug Task Force have been initiating efforts to inform students about their liability under the Massachusetts social host laws, which hold residents legally liable for anything that happens in their residences during a party — meaning that students could be sued if someone is injured in their residence.
Ultimately, the conflict between students, police and College administrators boils down to the fact that students want to drink and have parties, while the College and the police have to enforce College policies and the law, which restrict students’ ability to drink and have parties, according to Matt DeButts ’14, an AAS Senator active on this issue.
“I feel sympathetic to the College because I suspect that they’re caught between a rock and a hard place with worries about sexual assault and the knowledge that more alcohol consumption leads to sexual assault, and I’m sure they want us to have fun,” DeButts said. “I think students need to relax, and I think the way our generation seems to do that is to drink. I think people look to have a good time on Fridays and Saturdays and it’s tough to have that consistently shut down.”