Amherst, UMass authorities regroup after mass partying

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-16-2023 7:25 PM

AMHERST — Classes running later into the spring at the University of Massachusetts and graduation at the end of May for the first time in 14 years means many students will be staying in Amherst for more warm weather weekends.

Since the change in the spring semester to accommodate an extended winter session was announced last April, town officials and police and fire departments have been aware that this could add to the burden on public safety services — understanding that inclement conditions such as snow, rain and cold can be a valuable partner in combating large gatherings and neighborhood disturbances.

But the pre-St. Patrick’s Day events on March 4, in which significant quantities of alcohol were consumed by college-age people — many through what are known as blackout rage gallons, or borgs — and thousands of people coming together in specific areas of town, are giving town and UMass officials renewed concerns. Particularly worrisome, they said, would be preventing the resumption of problematic events, such as the Hobart Hoedown, which for a generation of students became a rite of passage.

The town and university are setting up an after-action meeting to see what lessons can be drawn from Saturday’s unsanctioned event, long known as Blarney Blowout.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said last week that throughout the spring the town won’t be able to depend as much on mutual aid partners — not only the several police agencies, including Northampton and Easthampton officers, who came to town — but the ambulances that arrived for 51 EMS calls, responses triggered through what is known as a mass casualty incident.

“We will be getting together soon to determine what this portends for the spring,” Bockelman said on Tuesday. “The extended spring season will be a factor.”

Bockelman told the Town Council on March 6 that next year’s March 4 event is now a concern, but the four extra weekends with students still in town this April and May are a more immediate worry likely to take a toll on officers, who will be stretched every weekend.

“We are concerned about next year, but we are more concerned about this spring,” Bockelman said.

UMass response

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UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said the university will work with the town. “We hope to discuss the strategy as to how to collaborate effectively over the course of the spring,” Blaguszewski said.

Dean of Students Evelyn Ashley’s letter focused on the dangers of large volume alcohol consumption and how students’ health is impacted, pointing out that they are not getting accurate information from TikTok, where videos suggest recipes of mixing vodka with water and electrolytes, such as Gatorade or Pedialyte, will diminish hangovers and allow them to drink more.

“We want to make sure the dangers of this activity are well known and understood,” Blaguszewski said.

University officials hope their warnings will not only aid students’ health and well being, but also lessen the burden on health resources in the region. UMass will also be sharing communication with parents, and reaching out to students in other ways, such as digital signs around campus, advertisements on UMass Transit buses, and emails.

More important, Blaguszewski said, there will be direct, in-person conversations on campus, and outreach to student leaders.

Although UMass continues to have some of the same policies enacted beginning in 2015 for the Blarney Blowout, following a report by former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis, including prohibiting guests in dorms and restricting parking, the event this year created more problems than in several years.

Bockelman said there is a belief that at least some of the participants traveled from up to two hours away. That was illustrated by some of the emergency calls, such as one where police found a college-age woman sleeping in a vehicle outside a downtown business, who said she was sleeping there because she couldn’t accompany a friend back to a dorm and was not ready to drive home.

Blaguszewski said UMass will be effective in focusing on students. “What we can control is our own campus,” Blaguszewski said.

Despite the large number of people on sidewalks and then crowded onto streets and in yards, Bockelman said, police showed incredible restraint during the widespread public partying. He pointed to a situation on South Whitney Street where well over 1,000 people partied on the short road between Main and College streets.

By 11:36 a.m., when the street became unpassable for emergency vehicles, and loud music and liquor law violations were observed, the party was broken up.

Bockelman said feedback from residents is that they were appalled by what they saw, with intoxicated people stumbling and carrying the ubiquitous plastic borgs.

Although Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s record for the number of medical transports in a 24-hour period was broken during the partying, there was little of the mayhem seen in the past, when revelers damaged bus stops, trees and vehicles, and were arrested for disorderly conduct.

“What we didn’t see is a significant amount of arrests, and no property damage,” Blaguszewski said.

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