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Keeping peace with the neighbors

Email|Print| Text size + By Christina Pazzanese
Globe Correspondent / November 18, 2007

Call him the Grim Reaper of Good Times.

Or perhaps Mr. Wet Blanket.

Steve Montgomery may be a soft-spoken guy in a maroon-and-gold windbreaker, but if you're a Boston College student throwing a raging house party, he's about the last person you want showing up at your door.

As the school's off-campus community liaison, Montgomery's job is to spend Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, sometimes until 4 a.m., cruising sections of Brighton and Chestnut Hill known for a large student population, looking for brightly colored plastic beer cups and listening for loud music and voices.

His prime targets are the 40 or so private homes in Brighton known as perennial student rentals. Last year, neighbors narrowed his priorities down further, identifying 18 "problem houses" that they said had a predictable pattern of bad behavior.

Of BC's approximately 8,900 undergrads, 85 percent live on campus. Since there isn't enough housing for all, third-year students typically comprise the bulk of those living off-campus, said Montgomery.

When he finds a bash underway, or the telltale signs of party preparations - like off-season Christmas lights twinkling in windows - Montgomery knocks on the door to give students a friendly-but-firm warning. As he passes out business cards, he lets them know that a loud party will bring more uninvited guests: the cops. Patrolling known trouble areas on foot and in an official BC-insignia SUV, Montgomery, 45, is a familiar face to students and on a first-name basis with many neighbors eager to let him know what's happening. His job, he says, is to make sure students understand that their neighbors' lives don't usually involve late nights and loud music.

"I hope," he said, "it's a message to change their behavior and to think before they act."

Though many other colleges, including Boston University and Northeastern, employ liaisons to keep an eye on students living off-campus and to help diffuse town-and-gown tensions, BC has been at it for nearly 20 years. Its efforts have earned praise - and even an award in 2004 - from Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who cites BC as a model for other schools to follow. Montgomery attributes the program's success, especially in the last few years, to the relentlessness with which he and other school officials drive home the message to students that BC's party school heyday is over.

Crunch time, said Montgomery, begins around Labor Day weekend, when students typically return to school. Making note of the addresses students are moving into, Montgomery introduces himself to students and their parents. He also passes out fliers and holds orientation sessions about off-campus living.

Montgomery said he's not shy about explaining the school's "zero tolerance" of underage drinking or its aggressive stance on maintaining peace and quiet for neighbors living side-by-side with students.

Students caught throwing an unruly bash - or worse, running afoul of the law - get written up in Montgomery's nightly report to the dean of students. If school officials decide students must appear before the dean, notices are sent to students and to their parents. Often, the threat of suspension or loss of coveted privileges, such as a semester abroad or a spot in the on-campus townhouses known as senior housing, is enough to keep students out of further trouble, said Montgomery.

"The BC students know they're going to be held accountable whether they're on campus or off campus," said Thomas J. Keady, the school's vice president of governmental and community affairs, who often patrols with Montgomery during the busy beginning of the school year.

Besides Montgomery, a BC police officer patrols off-campus every weekend with a uniformed Boston police officer. The pair stays in contact with Montgomery throughout the night. Liquor stores are required to give police the names and addresses of everyone buying a keg of beer, making it a little easier to track down and snuff out potential problems.

When things seem out of hand, Montgomery alerts officers to trouble spots, such as a jam-packed apartment on the 1100 block of Comm. Ave., where a Halloween party was in full swing one night last month, in violation of the city's 11 p.m. noise curfew.

Costumed revelers outside the building stop dead in their tracks when Montgomery's SUV pulls up and officers hop out of an unmarked sedan.

The second-story apartment, throbbing with music and chatter, gets eerily quiet when police knock on the door. Inside, dozens of revelers have apparently ditched their 30-packs of Bud Light and scattered into another room or out the back door while police and Montgomery warn the party hosts that while 21, they could be arrested if they serve alcohol to underage students. The guests reappear magically and file out silently when police call out, "Party's over, let's go." As Montgomery and police leave, the party hosts dutifully follow them out with a trash bag to pick up empty cans and other trash left out front.

"Our message is there's no such thing as a safe party," said Montgomery. And sneaking out the back door or lying about their BC affiliation is a losing strategy, he said. "We'll find out who you are."

Boston Police Captain William Evans said officers frequently see the ugliest consequences of such partying: Students passed out on lawns, taken to hospitals for alcohol poisoning, or getting injured - sometimes killed - by cars, trains, or falls from balconies.

Evans runs the Operation Student Shield program, launched by the city after its botched effort to break up unruly students celebrating the Red Sox 2004 playoff comeback led to the death of an Emerson College student. The focus, he said, is on educating those at smaller schools - such as Emerson, Berklee College of Music, Suffolk University, and Emmanuel College - to the idea that students can't run amok on weekends.

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