UMass Amherst Solves the ‘Blarney Blowout’
A year after an annual event known as Blarney Blowout caused national headlines for its chaos, the University of Massachusetts Amherst hosted an orderly, largely peaceful event by changing its approach.
March 7, 2014 was a difficult day for the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Amherst community as a whole. An annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration, known as ‘Blarney Blowout’ to students and ‘March 7’ by school officials, spiraled out of control and inspired national headlines. The unwanted publicity painted a picture of a campus in chaos.
“Last year’s March 7 event forced a level of introspection,” UMass Amherst Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Campus Life Enku Gelaye says. “Everyone from town officials to faculty to staff to students had to deal with the fallout of 2014. We have so many students engaged in fantastic work here, but the image that was projected was not flattering to the community, and that’s what was so disappointing.”
Blarney Blowout began years ago as a bar attraction for seniors, but soon it morphed into a student-wide tradition of extensive partying all around the spacious Western Massachusetts campus. The university never officially recognized the yearly affair but did occasionally host small events on campus to deflect attention away from it. In 2014, both campus and town police struggled to disperse massive gatherings of students and visitors (there were reports of between 7,000 and 10,000 people on and around campus). Many minors were drinking, and police confrontations were common.
This environment exacerbated an already tense situation and things got ugly. Officers estimated they shot off roughly 600 rounds of pepper spray and sting balls while making nearly 60 arrests. Students and visitors threw rocks and beer bottles at the police and yelled obscenities at them. Everyone knew something needed to change.
Campus Picks Up the Pieces
In the aftermath of the event, the university hired former Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis to review the episode and offer recommendations to the town, police, school faculty, students and local business owners. Davis is a law enforcement expert known for his success handling large gatherings in Boston. The report was released in September 2014 and was met with criticism by some.
Davis’s primary recommendation was for the Amherst Police Department and the University of Massachusetts Police Department to “more fully adopt a Community Policing Framework.” The report explained that community policing “emphasized strong community ties and partnerships as well as evidence-based problem solving strategies to decrease crime and enhance the well-being of [the department’s] citizens.” The report also stressed the importance of proactive prevention techniques like working with students, increasing communication and improving police training.
Still, there was reason to be skeptical things would be any different in 2015. Leaders of both the school and town police told the Boston Globe they disagreed with some of the report’s recommendations, while students said they were still waiting for an apology.
UMass Amherst Implements a Plan
Gelaye says the university immediately started bringing students into the planning process to better understand their perspective. Student government members and campus leaders began sitting in on almost every meeting school officials held regarding the March 7 event.
“Our students said to us early on that communicating only when an issue comes up didn’t make them feel like they were part of the solution,” she remembers. “They said the administrative structure was chastising them. So we went with a weekly communication model to establish a relationship, even if it was just through email, and that way it’s not just a singular email after an incident has occurred.”
Another aspect of the planning process was improving coordination with the town of Amherst.
“That’s everything from asking how much support staff do we need? How many ambulances and police? What kind of training do all these officers need to manage a large build up?” Gelaye says. Police from 14 neighboring towns were brought in, and it was decided that many of the Davis report’s community policing tactics were to be used.
The final and possibly most important aspect of the plan was to offer alternative programming for students on the weekend of March 7.
“The idea of a concert came from students, and it was very clear that the concert needed to attract a large number of students, so we needed to get an artist that students found interesting,” Gelaye says. It was also important to the university to maintain a strong student presence at the concert, which led to the school employing many students to greet concert goers as they entered the premises.
Other strategies taken from the Davis Report included using cameras around designated problem areas and monitoring social media to anticipate build ups.
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