Report Recommends Voluntary Moratorium on Spring Weekend

To:  The University Community

From:  Philip E. Austin

In May 2010, President Hogan established a Task Force charged to develop proposals to “De-Escalate Spring Weekend.” The Task Force, chaired by Provost Peter Nicholls and comprising members of the administration, representatives of the Town of Mansfield, and the State Police, was charged with “developing a set of actionable strategies which will result in substantial reduction of violence and risk related to UConn’s Spring Weekend.” The Task Force met on a number of occasions, consulted broadly with on-campus governance groups as well as off-campus constituencies, developed a report, and presented their recommendations to me for consideration. The report can be viewed in its entirety below.

I accept this report and the recommendations presented within.

I particularly endorse, and urge all members of the University community to support, the recommendation that we ask students to engage in a voluntary moratorium on Spring Weekend in 2011. The reasons for this are clearly outlined in the report. The safety of our students is paramount, and I believe we must do everything we can to eliminate the risk of violence during the particular weekend in question and throughout the year.

Let me express my appreciation to the Task Force for their diligent work and for their thoughtful proposals. I urge students, staff, faculty, and friends of the University to work together to implement the proposals of the Task Force.

Report of the UConn Spring Weekend Task Force

Background

“Spring Weekend” at UConn first developed in the 1960s and has existed in different incarnations since that time, usually taking place on the last weekend before spring semester final exams. In its earlier years, the gathering was relatively small and composed mainly of UConn students.

However, with each passing decade, the number of people attending Spring Weekend became progressively larger in size. Outside of any design or intention of the university, it eventually grew into massive gatherings over three nights that included huge numbers of people with no connection to the university who traveled from elsewhere in the state or the region to attend.

By the 1990s, far from the comparatively sedate gathering it once was, the modern Spring Weekend had become vast, unwieldy, unpredictable and dangerous; the hallmarks of the unsanctioned gatherings included increasingly more vandalism, medical emergencies, recklessness, drug and alcohol abuse, aggression and violence. It is estimated that non-UConn students began making up at least half of the assembled crowds.

In 1998, after especially chaotic and disturbing nights on Thursday and Friday, the university made the decision to close X-Lot – the traditional Saturday night gathering place – in an effort to forcefully prevent the event from happening on land or property controlled by the university. In response, the crowds surrounding X-Lot grew combative and violent and began assaulting emergency responders. The situation then deteriorated into destructive confrontations between the assembled crowds and law enforcement, who were working to preserve order and safety. This resulted in numerous injuries, scores of arrests and extensive property damage throughout campus. It also created a lasting stain on the university’s reputation.

Since that time, the university, the town of Mansfield and the state have taken new and different approaches to effectively managing the uninvited crowds during Spring Weekend. These efforts are aimed at reducing risk, property damage and violence while also preventing the kind of confrontational dynamic that was created in 1998. At the same time, the sheer volume of Spring Weekend participants has continued to grow steadily over the last decade to the point that police estimated crowds to be as large as 10,000 – 15,000 in recent years, including a number of high school-aged individuals. In contrast, the crowd in 1998 was estimated to be roughly 4,000.

The risks associated with the three-day event have continued: UConn and state police made over 100 arrests in 2010 for numerous offenses ranging from narcotics to weapons possession to assault. The presence of gang members has also been noted. Additionally, in recent years, there has also been an increase in the size and frequency of additional off-campus gatherings during other times of the year, though Spring Weekend remains by far the largest.

Though the fact it exists at all creates inherent risks, it is the behavior that occurs while it is going on that makes Spring Weekend so problematic. The data associated with Spring Weekend reveals important details about the root of the problem:

  • Of the 84 individuals arrested by UConn police over the three day period in 2010, 70 of them – or 83% – were not UConn students. According to UConn police, that percentage is typical for the weekend in recent years, with between 80% and 90% of arrests each year involving people with no connection to the university.
  • Of all the individuals treated for medical issues during Spring Weekend – including those who were dangerously intoxicated or were hurt in accidents or fights – UConn’s Health Services Director Michael Kurland has said that between 80% and 90% are non-students.
  • In 2010, there were between 6,000 and 7,000 registered guests – and an unknown number of unregistered guests – staying on campus with UConn students over Spring Weekend.

For many years, the university sponsored Spring Weekend events on campus, such as concerts and games, as a means to provide alternative activities and draw  students away from the unsanctioned off-campus gatherings that revolve around alcohol consumption. However, it became clear that the university-sponsored events could not effectively compete with the draw of the off-campus parties and this effort was never successful. Many students often participated in both the sanctioned and unsanctioned events and non-students came to Mansfield specifically for the off-campus gatherings. There is little evidence that recent alternative on-campus university programming during Spring Weekend has or will meaningfully reduce the number of people who participate in the off-campus gatherings.

Not wishing to draw more people to campus or give any appearance of supporting Spring Weekend, the university has reduced or eliminated many university-sponsored events during the weekend. It has also encouraged students to not participate in the unsanctioned Spring Weekend events, most especially the gatherings at Carriage House, Celeron Square and X-Lot, none of which the university condones in any way. Further, UConn has closed roads and parking lots and set up sobriety checkpoints, along with state police, to discourage non-students from traveling to Storrs and to stop intoxicated people from driving.

In the interest of preserving public safety and the security of the campus and community, UConn, the state and surrounding towns have police, fire and emergency medical services on hand during Spring Weekend. Though this is costly, the consequences of not doing so are obvious.

Because Spring Weekend is so problematic, many in and out of the university have asked why UConn does not simply “cancel” the event. Those who support Spring Weekend are correct when they say it has become a tradition – albeit an unwanted, expensive and dangerous one – which many students often feel entitled to participate in. It is a tradition that has grown and developed organically over more than four decades and is ingrained as part of the culture, not only for UConn students but for thousands of non-students who travel to Storrs. This has made it the kind of problem that is most difficult to address. Spring Weekend is a case of thousands of people gathering against the university’s wishes, not the university inviting thousands to gather. It must be understood that if there were any realistic, practical way for the university to end Spring Weekend outright, then it would have done so many years ago.

This is especially true in the wake of the most recent Spring Weekend.

Shortly after midnight on Friday, April 23, 2010 following the off-campus gathering at the Carriage House apartment complex, UConn junior Jafar Karzoun was brutally assaulted outside a restaurant on North Eagleville Road just beyond the edge of campus. Eight days later, on Saturday evening, May 1, he died as a result of his injuries. He was 20 years old.

A 19-year-old man, a non-UConn student in Mansfield to attend Spring Weekend, was arrested and later charged in Jafar’s death.

Spring Weekend Task Force

On May 7, 2010, days after Karzoun died, a task force composed of UConn administrators and later Mansfield officials and state police was created by the university president. The mission of the task force was to recommend steps the university could take to “deescalate” Spring Weekend – to make it smaller, more manageable, less attractive to students and non-students alike – and above all, to reduce the risk of violence.

This was certainly not the first time the university had devoted time and effort to these questions. In 2008 and early 2009, a committee of administrators, faculty, staff and students met regularly and presented a report on Spring Weekend to the Board of Trustees Student Life Committee on possible ways to address the event.

In the year that immediately followed, Jasper Howard and Jafar Karzoun were killed. The fact that the second of these two deaths took place during Spring Weekend – realizing a long-held fear on the part of the university – added a new urgency to the goal of deescalating the event. The work done by the previous Spring Weekend committee is an important basis for this report and its recommendations.

The fundamental issue is devising new solutions for an old problem. As was noted above, if there were a practical way to end Spring Weekend, the university would have eagerly implemented it long ago. It is clear to the members of the task force that, in the end, there are variations on only two realistic options:

a)    Forcefully stop people from gathering

b)    Discourage non-university students from attending the non-sanctioned events

The problem with the first option – using mass force in an attempt to prevent anyone from gathering at all – is that it necessitates confrontation and would require more resources in the form of emergency personnel than could possibly be provided.

The fact remains that thousands of individuals are going to attempt to gather for Spring Weekend whether the university wants them to or not. Much about UConn has changed in the last 12 years, but there is no reason to believe that the dynamic between revelers and law enforcement would be any different now than it was in 1998. Meeting them with a very aggressive response would undoubtedly trigger the same kind of angry, violent, ugly confrontations that were seen then. The possibility that a Spring Weekend participant may bring a weapon to campus greatly increases this concern. And knowing that Spring Weekend crowds today are more than twice as large as they were 1998, it has the very real potential to become disastrous.

We firmly believe that a hyper-aggressive approach such as this would come at a terrible cost that far exceeds its value.

On the second option: the police provide a strong, judicious presence that seeks to stop crime from occurring – particularly any kind of violence – without simultaneously creating large-scale confrontations between police and revelers.

Approaching the event like this is clearly an effective way to manage these gatherings that wisely bridges the divide between a very aggressive, confrontational approach and something more hands-off. Yet the inherent risks to life and property continue to exist under this approach, because Spring Weekend continues to exist. Perhaps future years will be uneventful, or perhaps there will be another tragedy. It is only a matter of chance and time.

So the question becomes, what will deescalate Spring Weekend? Examining and recommending such options was the charge of the task force.

Recommendations

We present these recommendations for consideration by UConn’s president and for discussion among students, staff, faculty, town government and residents. They are presented with an acknowledgement of the complexity of managing conduct outside of the jurisdiction of the university campus. Whether they are implemented is ultimately the decision of the university administration in partnership with the town of Mansfield. How they are effectively implemented will be the subject of future work on the part of this task force and other stakeholders.

The goal behind them is three-fold: 1) to significantly reduce the size of crowds present on and around campus over Spring Weekend, especially non-students; 2) to reduce the risk of and potential for crime during Spring Weekend; 3) to deter individuals from participating in Spring Weekend gatherings.

Our recommendations are as follows:

  • Prohibit guests in dormitories on all three nights of Spring Weekend. In 2010, between 6,000 and 7,000 registered guests spent a portion or all of the period associated with Spring Weekend staying with friends or acquaintances on campus. These guests played a major role in contributing to the extraordinary volume of the Spring Weekend gatherings, making them more difficult to manage and increasing the risks associated with them. This flood of non-students onto campus contributing to crowds of between 10,000 and 15,000 is intolerable. In addition to banning non-students from dormitories during this period, non-students will not be admitted to UConn’s dining halls.

  • Aggressively work to prevent non-students from successfully gaining access to campus or the nearby off-campus complexes to participate in Spring Weekend. As was mentioned above, only 14 of the 84 people arrested by UConn police during this past Spring Weekend were UConn students, meaning 83% of those arrested were non-students. Similarly, between 80% and 90% of people requiring medical attention during Spring Weekend are non-students. It is clear that those with no connection to the university who travel here for Spring Weekend cause the vast majority of the problems the event generates. They represent a threat to the safety of UConn students, the campus and the community. We suggest that law enforcement continue and enhance the effective strategies they began in 2010 aimed specifically at preventing non-students from being able to participate in Spring Weekend.
  • When possible, cancel remaining university-sponsored events associated with Spring Weekend and cancel other evening events on campus during this period, including those at the Jorgensen and the Student Union. Even positive on-campus events during this period make it more difficult to effectively bar non-students from gaining access to campus as it must remain porous to some degree to allow for travel. Also, again, there is no evidence that official on-campus programming has any effect on the unsanctioned events.

  • Propose a voluntary moratorium on Spring Weekend in 2011 in light of the deaths of Jafar Karzoun and Jasper Howard. In recognition of these losses, we recommend that students be asked to not participate in any Spring Weekend activities out of respect for their late classmates. All students who are able to should be encouraged to return home for the weekend. Students who celebrate Easter can take advantage of the fact the holiday weekend falls on what has traditionally been the Spring Weekend period this coming year. The long term goal of the university is to continually deescalate Spring Weekend – both on and off-campus. A one-year moratorium this April will serve as the foundation of that effort.

  • The university should more aggressively engage area landlords to help address aspects of Spring Weekend.

We are aware that despite the risks and possible consequences, there are many UConn students who see Spring Weekend as an entitlement. There is undoubtedly a perception that the university’s efforts to significantly limit and curtail Spring Weekend represent an effort to unfairly erode the enjoyment some associate with it.

All involved should understand that the university’s first and greatest concern is the safety of our students and the sanctity of our campus and the surrounding community. Spring Weekend has without question become a magnet for toxic behavior and criminality that poses too great a risk to the UConn community for the university to tolerate it any longer in its current form. This is our sole motivation in seeking to diminish it. We look forward to discussing our recommendations with students, faculty, staff and the town of Mansfield in the coming weeks.

Task Force Members:

Peter Nicholls, Provost & Executive Vice President (Chair)
Colonel Thomas Davoren, Deputy Commissioner, CT Department of Public Safety
Barry Feldman, Vice President & Chief Operating Officer
Matthew Hart, Town Manager, Town of Mansfield
Robert Hudd, Associate Vice President & Chief of Police
Paul McCarthy, Senior Associate Director of Athletics/Administration (Staff)
Betsy Paterson, Mayor, Town of Mansfield
John Saddlemire, Vice President for Student Affairs
Ralph Urban, Assistant Attorney General
Jim Walter, Associate Vice President for University Communications

Dec. 22, 2010