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Attacks, rowdiness rattling many at UMass-Amherst

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / February 21, 2008

AMHERST - A raucous off-campus house party erupting into a drunken, bloody brawl. Athletes allegedly attacking other partygoers with baseball bats, lacrosse sticks, and bottles. Two students facing attempted murder charges in separate late-night dormitory confrontations that included an alleged rape and a racially charged double stabbing.

That's the grim police blotter at UMass-Amherst over just the past three weeks, a spate of violence that has deeply rattled many students and faculty and left administrators pleading for peace. Even for a campus infamous for rowdy partying and occasional outbursts of violence, the scope and severity, over such a short time frame, have stirred widespread anger and alarm.

The rash of attacks, which law enforcement and college officials describe as highly unusual for UMass, has also prompted soul-searching about the effectiveness of efforts to curb the binge drinking that is believed to be fueling violence.

"We need to shift away from looking at each individual incident, and toward looking at this as a cultural problem," said Marianne Winters, director of the campus women's center. "There's this anticipation, almost an expectation, on campus that violence is a possibility."

UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said administrators are highly concerned about the violence, but that each episode involved unrelated people and circumstances. He asserted that the campus is safe overall and pointed out that alcohol-fueled fights are not uncommon on large campuses.

"These are very serious and troubling incidents," he said. "But it is not a UMass-Amherst-specific problem. This is an issue across the country, particularly at large flagships."

Of UMass-Amherst's 25,000 students, 19,000 are undergraduates. About 12,000 students live on campus, and Blaguszewski said the university is working with Amherst police to crack down on unruly off-campus parties.

In response to the recent events, the university is also increasing campus police patrols, particulary around dormitories and has urged residential staff to report suspicious behavior, he said.

Some students say altercations are inevitable on a large campus.

"It's a huge school and kind of like its own city," said freshman Nicholas Leoutsakos. "I'm not surprised if there are jackasses who want to hurt other people."

At a student forum last week to discuss the violence, many students focused on the most highly publicized of the three recent criminal incidents.

Jason Vassell, a 23-year-old student who was popular on campus, was charged with stabbing John Bowes, 20, who is not a UMass student, several times around 5 a.m. in a dormitory. Many students said they believed Vassell was defending himself in the confrontation, which police said began when Bowes shouted racial slurs at Vassell, who is black. Bowes also faces criminal charges.

Another UMass student was charged with attempting to rape and strangle a student on campus.

Those episodes, along with the off-campus brawl involving several lacrosse players, three of whom face criminal charges, occurred earlier this month. The five students who face charges in those incidents are no longer at the university, officials said.

In the latest incident, campus police found several people last weekend outside high-rise dorms with blood on them, a half-hour after Amherst police broke up an off-campus melee. Police said they are investigating but have made no arrests.

Amherst Police Chief Charles L. Scherpa said the surge of violence, while unusual, is part of a longstanding campus culture of drunken rowdiness that for many has become a rite of passage.

"Every weekend, we could make hundreds of arrests" for disorderly conduct and vandalism, he said.

University officials, however, said recent events mask overall progress in controlling troublesome students.

"In recent years, campus officials have taken a number of steps to enhance public safety at UMass-Amherst, and we believe that those efforts are bearing fruit," said Robert Connolly, a spokesman for the UMass system.

In 2006, the university and town police redoubled efforts to rein in the school's notorious party scene, boosting enforcement and giving town police the authority to respond to on-campus disruptions. The crackdown followed mounting pressure from state and university leaders who said the university's rowdy image detracted from its goal of becoming an elite public research university.

Blaguszewski said alcohol education and outreach programs have reduced binge drinking by 25 percent, according to student surveys conducted by the university. Binge drinking is defined as downing at least four drinks in one sitting three times over two weeks.

"We feel we've made progress," he said. "But still these episodes happen, here and at other campuses. We just have to remain vigilant."

University officials said that the rowdiest parties occur off-campus, where the university has little control. A town-university coalition is proposing a measure that would give local law enforcement broader authority to break up disruptive parties and hold hosts responsible for serving alcohol to minors.

UMass has a history of student outbursts. In December 2006, nearly 2,000 students rioted after the UMass football team lost the national Division 1-AA championship game, smashing windows, setting fire to trash cans, and pelting police officers with debris.

In 2003, about 1,000 students overturned cars, set fires, and threw bottles at police after a Red Sox playoff game.

Jeff Napolitano, president of the college's Graduate Student Senate, said the increasing concentration of first-year students in one section of campus has exacerbated the rowdiness. "When the university packs freshmen, who have no experience living on their own, into one area, there are bound to be problems," he said.

Freshman Elizabeth Maynard said that fights at parties are frequent and that the violence worries her. "I definitely think it makes me a little more wary" she said.

Correspondents Katie Huston and Michael King contributed to this report from Amherst.

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