Can the University of Massachusetts Amherst Stop Its Students from Rioting Over the Super Bowl?

Administrators have banned guests in dorms on the day of the big game.

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Jan 29 2015, 7:26pm

Photo via Flickr user bxfu

The maroon and white signs hang in dormitory halls: "No guests are allowed in any UMass Amherst Residence Halls. UMass Amherst resident students are allowed access only to the hall in which they live."

The no-visitors rule takes effect Sunday, and while it represents an unusual step by the university administration, it's not a response to a terror threat or a natural disaster. Instead, it's a preemptive battening down of the hatches for the Super Bowl—an event that, for the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is marked by debauchery that's as disruptive as it is predictable. Especially when the local favorite New England Patriots are involved.

Colleges all over the country have had to deal with sports-related shenanigans of varying degrees of seriousness. From Super Bowl violence near the University of Northern Colorado's campus in 1999 to the thousands of Penn State students who clashed with police and toppled a news van in protest of football coach Joe Paterno's 2011 firing amid the school's sexual molestation scandal, this is the stuff of Americana. At UMass, a school whose wild party-school heyday has been fading in recent years, confrontations between drunk students and police are near-annual occurrences that continue to vex administrators.

"I know most students do not condone the negative behavior of a few, but, unfortunately we must acknowledge that our campus has a history of large-scale unruly gatherings, often associated with sporting events," Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Enku Gelaye wrote in message to students, urging the campus to "defy expectations" and reject calls to riot posted on social media.

A maze-like strip of towering Brutalist architecture and well-trafficked courtyards, the university's Southwest Residential Area has long enjoyed a reputation for sports- and alcohol-fueled rowdiness. In recent years, major defeats or victories by local teams—the Patriots in 2012, the Boston Red Sox in 2013 and 2004, the UMass football team in 2006—have seen up to 1,800 students pour outdoors to throw beer cans and toilet paper about, start fires, and even fight the riot cops who get sent out to stop everything from getting out of hand.

This year, with another Patriots Super Bowl appearance whetting appetites for Keystone Light and high-spirited vandalism, the administration is taking strong measures to prevent yet another chaotic disturbance—including declaring Southwest a no-go zone for nonresidents. Gelaye, in a message to parents, recommended that students who live in the residential area should stay in their dorms, and those who do not should stay away the night of the game.

University spokesman Ed Blaguszewski told VICE the school is basing its response on recommendations from former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis, whose consulting firm penned a report on campus safety following mass arrests at an off-campus St. Patrick's Day party in Amherst last year. Davis's firm suggested the school focus on preventive policing and consider the suspension of guest privileges under "extraordinary circumstances."

UMass is not alone in its concern: In Washington State and New England, schools are tightening security before kickoff. The city of Seattle, whose Seahawks will play the Patriots on Sunday, erupted into chaos after their team's Super Bowl win last year.

"If the Seahawks are able to win another Super Bowl, people are going to be very excited and very enthused, and they're going to celebrate. We hope they celebrate in an orderly and responsible fashion," University of Washington spokesman Norm Arkans said in a statement. "We are not worried about an extreme reaction, but we are prepared if people end up responding over-enthusiastically."

University police will increase their presence at the Seattle campus, where some students lit fires after last year's game.

Colleges in New England and Washington contacted by VICE reported a variety of responses to the upcoming game, though none besides UMass Amherst plan to restrict student movement.

Boston University will host a communal viewing party and increase police patrols, though guest privileges will not be affected and it's anticipated that most students will watch the game in their dorm rooms. The University of New Hampshire will work with campus and local police to ensure security, and residence staff will inform students of the school's behavioral expectations. And the University of Connecticut, where campus police arrested dozens of people after the school's basketball team won the NCAA championship last year, will have extra officers on duty, though a spokesperson said no problems are expected.

Other universities are taking a relaxed approach, expressing confidence that their student bodies will celebrate victory or mourn defeat without lighting anything on fire or punching anyone. Through spokespeople, Tufts University and the University of Vermont told VICE that there will be no changes in staffing or procedures for the weekend. A Boston College spokesman said no additional security was planned, though students are encouraged to remain on campus and not attend any large gatherings in the city after the game. And both Gonzaga University and Washington State University, whose campuses lie over 250 miles from last year's post-game clashes in Seattle, do not plan on increasing security.

"There were no incidents on our campus last year when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, and we don't anticipate any when they win again this year," wrote Washington State University spokesman Rob Strenge in an email.

Some campuses have reacted to athletic events with less restraint. In 2005 and 2013, students at the Michigan State University went on rampages over the performance of their basketball and football teams, respectively. When University of Tennessee football fans learned in 2010 that coach Lane Kiffen was unexpectedly leaving for a job at the University of Southern California, students set fires and scrawled "Fuck You Lane Kiffen" on the Rock, a boulder in the middle of campus traditionally used as a student message board.

UMass has repeatedly drawn up ideas to prevent rioting after sporting and major news events on campus, with schemes falling flat due to legal problems or logistics.

Riot police on the UMass-Amherst campus after the Super Bowl in 2012. Photo by Chelsie Field/Daily Collegian

In 2012, then-head of UMass housing Eddie Hull asked campus police to search individual students wearing backpacks as they entered dorms on the night of the big game, according to an email we reviewed at the time. Then chief of campus police Johnny Whitehead questioned the idea's constitutionality and never implemented it, he said in an interview. The game ended with a Patriots loss, 14 arrests, and riot police shooting pepper balls into a crowd of hundreds of raucous students outside a campus dining hall.

According to internal emails obtained by VICE, the next year two weeks before the Super Bowl Hull recommended banning students from using "areas around residence halls" for "spontaneous celebrations," instead funneling students to an official gathering sanctioned by the school.

The proposal never took. Hull said in an email to administration and student government officials that his plan to restrict outdoor celebrations was criticized for not leaving students with any choice and being a logistical nightmare to enforce on short notice. Hull also criticized the negative effect on campus of these "mob-like gatherings," citing student complaints and concern for the psychological well-being of students who are military veterans (and presumably might suffer from PTSD).

Though Sunday's restrictions are the most dramatic policy change implemented by UMass administrators, housing rules will change the Friday and Saturday before the game, too: Students will only be allowed to sign in two non-UMass individuals into their dorms. On other nights, students are allowed to sign in up to four guests.

The changes have been met with dissatisfaction on campus, according to social media posts and interviews with students. One Twitter user posted a photo of a sign announcing the rule with the caption "Welcome to UMass Alcatraz." The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the school's student-run daily newspaper, published an opinion piece arguing that the guest ban will not prevent students from holding wild celebrations. (Full disclosure: Both of the authors are former Daily Collegian staffers.)

UMass political science junior Charlotte Kelly, a 20-year-old who lives in the on-campus suites furthest from the Southwest towers, said not all of the 22,000 undergraduates are interested in the Big Game or running down to Southwest to celebrate afterwards. She called the new guest policy rules "unjust" and "unfair," saying students living on campus may have to cancel plans with friends or study groups over a game they could not care less about. (The school will host about 40 viewing parties in dorms and common areas, according to spokesman Ed Blaguszewski.)

Like most other students she's spoken with, Kelly says she found out about the housing changes through word of mouth and student media late last week.

"The student government knew about it and didn't say anything. Higher-ups in Res Life knew about it and didn't say anything," she said. "This massive change to [students'] lives was happening and none of them had been told about it."

All UMass students received an email outlining the ban on Super Bowl day guests Monday afternoon from the head of residence hall security.

Student Government Association President Vinayak Rao said the administration informed SGA members of the guest policy changes soon after the Patriots secured their Super Bowl berth.

Rao said he and other students have reservations about the game day changes, noting that he sees why students, like one woman he spoke with who said she's upset she can't watch the game with her boyfriend, are frustrated. But Rao also said he understands the administration's measure as an attempt to ensure the safety and security of students.

"I believe the university has tried a lot of things in the past and this is a step that they felt they had to take," he said. "Naturally, it was not well-received at all, by students living in the dorms and living off-campus as well."

Amid Super Bowl hype and an administration anxious to quell possible disruptions, some are trying to find another way. UMass Junior Tim Gustave has invited over a thousand people to a Facebook event he's titled "UMass Amherst School-Wide Peaceful Protest (In Lieu Of Patriots Riot)," in the hopes that his fellow students would rather spend their post-game evening campaigning against social injustice than drunkenly destroying property.

"I have faith in you," Gustave wrote on Facebook. "Peace is more powerful than any act of stupidity and won't get you arrested or expelled from school."

Dan Glaun is a freelance journalist based in Queens. Alyssa Creamer is a Boston reporter who works as a Metro Correspondent for the Boston Globe and a digital producer at WBUR. Follow Dan and Alyssa on Twitter.