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UMass students vent about Blowout

Tell administrators about police concern

University of Massachusetts student Preston Davis, describes observations he made while attending the Blarney Blowout during a forum Thursday at Herter Hall.

JERREY ROBERTS University of Massachusetts student Preston Davis, describes observations he made while attending the Blarney Blowout during a forum Thursday at Herter Hall.

“They started pulling students out of the crowd and throwing them to the ground,” said Davis, contending that police officers were using intimidation and fear tactics.

At the World Series celebration that took place in the Southwest area of the campus in October, junior Jishava Patel said she observed police on horses, others on foot and a riot van blaring a loud horn as they moved in on the crowd.

“I felt very unsafe and intimidated and not understanding what was going on,” Patel said.

For Davis and Patel, an accountability forum Thursday afternoon allowed them to express concerns directly to UMass administrators about how law enforcement officials respond to large-scale gatherings both on and off campus.

Two weeks after a group calling itself This is UMass led a rally against what they say is police brutality, Chancellor Kumble Subbamsway, Vice Chancellor for University Relations John Kennedy and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life Enku Gelaye met with about 40 students in the auditorium at Herter Hall.

Subbaswamy said this is the beginning of a difficult conversation, but said he is confident that calm and levelheaded discussions will lead to better results. “I think new approaches are necessary,” Subbaswamy said.

The challenge, he said, is that problems develop quickly, such as the World Series party that was peaceful for most of the evening before some of the crowds in the Southwest area became unruly.

“In these large gatherings, it doesn’t take a lot. A small percentage of bad apples can ruin the whole thing,” Subbaswamy said.

Kennedy explained that UMass is putting together a task force involving students to find other activities to counter these events and to find ways to improve messaging. Kennedy said officials are also consulting with experts in the psychology of crowd control and behavior and hiring former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis to complete a comprehensive review of all aspects related to Blarney Blowout.

“We are aware that we have a problem here. We are aware that we don’t have solutions,” Kennedy said.

Subbaswamy assured students their voices would be heard. “You will have opportunities to provide direct input to this process,” Subbaswamy said.

David Morin, a senior, said as a victim of alleged police brutality during a 2009 traffic stop, he had hoped to see more students who interacted with police during Blarney Blowout.

“I’m really disappointed more students aren’t here,” Morin said. “Where are all the people who saw what happened? That’s a very important question.”

Charlotte Kelly, a sophomore who helped organize the forum, said many couldn’t speak because of legal cases pending against them. But she read some of the accounts students submitted, which suggested police overreaction. “There were students pepper-sprayed for no reason,” Kelly said.

Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone, who was not at the forum, has defended the actions of his officers, and Town Manager John Musante has supported their actions.

Several students raised concern with UMass officials about being prohibited from holding parties on campus.

“We need to resume having large events on the UMass campus,” said sophomore Mason Weiser, observing that tailgate parties never led to bloodshed.

Weiser said the frequent attitude from police officers is that students are a problem to be dealt with. “I’m afraid of the police department here,” Weiser said.

The cancellation of the dance and electronic music (EDM) concerts last fall was also an issue. Subbaswamy said a string of deaths related to the club drug Molly prompted that, but they can now resume. “We’re back in the EDM business,” Subbaswamy said.

Davis suggested UMass support Blarney Blowout in a more controlled environment, like the tailgate parties prior to football games held at McGuirk Alumni Stadium,

Subbasway said no matter what, UMass will follow the law that only those 21 and older would be served alcohol at campus functions.

“There will not be alcohol served to underaged students under any circumstances,” Subbaswamy said.

A handful of students spoke about how university officials, despite the messaging done in advance of Blarney Blowout, were caught unprepared.

Tyler O’Day, a freshman who lives in the Southwest area of campus, said it was evident Blarney Blowout brought in students from all over New England, as parking lots were packed with vehicles and the dormitories were “full to the brim.”

O’Day noted that numerous other colleges and universities in New England and elsewhere were on spring break.

The large number of visitors is believed to be responsible for damage at Patterson dormitory, where junior Emily Devenney works as a resident assistant. “It’s the most destruction I’ve seen in my residence hall,” Devenney said.

Devenney said, unlike the World Series, there were no additional resident assistants on duty, and no instructions for offering counterprogramming or making food and water available. Security personnel at the doors to her dorm were overwhemmed during the sign-in process.

Gelaye said the voices of students are critical to making change happen.

“The solutions moving forward cannot happen without your active involvement and engagement,” Gelaye said.

Weiser, though, said he is skeptical that students will see any change “I think the administration will do whatever is safest and least difficult for them,” Weiser said.

But Kelly said the forum was an outlet for “positive progress” and that administrators understand students will be involved in the process. “I’m really pleased with the performance of the forum,” Kelly said.

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