And then it happened. The act that alumni, students, parents and administrators
see as a sign that something had changed for the worse.
No one knows who picked up the first rock or glass bottle, but police reported that by the end of the night a few groups of young people attacked responding police officers and firefighters, damaging 11 of their cars and trucks. In response, police declared riots at the scenes in Sunnyside and High Street and used pepper spray and tear gas to subdue and dispel the crowds.
By morning, area police had arrested seven WVU students, among others. By the following Thursday, three students had been expelled for their roles in the riots, and others were being investigated. In total, the city estimated the cost of the riot at $45,000 to cover damages and purchase riot gear.
The University continued to face similar challenges — and one with tragic consequences.
In the middle of November, freshman Nolan Michael Burch, 18, of Williamsville, N.Y., died following an incident at a fraternity house that is still under investigation. Within hours of emergency responders being called to the off-campus fraternity house where Burch was found needing CPR, the University placed a moratorium on all fraternity and sorority chapter social and pledging activities. That has continued until press time.
That was not the only recent incident involving a fraternity. The week before, 19 members of another fraternity were cited for underage drinking and possession of alcohol in the South Park neighborhood of Morgantown.
Following the riots, Mountaineers, parents, community members and society as a whole — were left asking, “Why?” Alumni especially wanted to know what had changed since they lived in the small town where people drank and had a good time at football games, but attacking cops just wasn’t normal.
WVU President E. Gordon Gee firmly declared “zero tolerance” for the student behavior and addressed the WVU community calling for a culture change. He called on students to become partners in safety and to take personal responsibility, and for the entire community to address the national alcohol abuse crisis and to act on a better vision for the University’s future.
He ended with, “It is time to take our University back.”
“You’re never going to eliminate the partying but at least if you have the balance there, they’re going to be more responsible.”
WVU criminologist Karen Weiss knows a lot about what happens at night when students who usually behave during the day stop behaving. She regularly surveys her students on the behavior they witness among their peers and has analyzed their responses in a 2013 book, “Party School: Crime, Campus and Community.”
They anonymously tell her about the fights they witness, the injuries they see, how it frightens them and makes them feel powerless. And from both perpetrators and witnesses, she’s learned that many of them think it’s normal and not a big deal.
That’s what she’s heard for a long time — that antisocial and criminal behavior taking place on college campuses across the country is seen as normal by current students. After a recent spate of riots this April, USA Today and The Christian Science Monitor asked if the rioting was a trend.
Among academics, Weiss said, there’s controversy about whether this destructive behavior is increasing or whether it’s just more noticeable now. And before you ask, the secret to eradicating this kind of behavior hasn’t been discovered. It seems all universities are in this together, with varying results.
Partying is more likely to happen nationally at big, public universities with strong sports programs, Weiss said. And the rioting? It’s rarer, but it happens enough to create a picture to examine, she said. Other public universities such as University of Delaware, University of Colorado at Boulder and University of California, Santa Barbara, among others, have faced similar situations in the last several years.
In April alone, rioters at Iowa State University caused $100,000 worth of damage during their traditional Veishea event, and University of Arizona and University of Kentucky also had riots. The same weekend as the WVU-Baylor game, riots erupted near Keene State College during its Pumpkin Festival.
She said the main factors are the influence of readily available alcohol, the persuasive power of a minority of students who worship destructive behavior and a silent majority that doesn’t speak up.
“In a strange irony, they actually see that as benefiting the school,” she said of the perpetrators’ acts. “There’s just a warped identity with the school as if their party behavior is actually good for the school.
“They’re already primed that this is normal,” she said. “Trying to convince them otherwise, I think it’s an uphill battle but it certainly can be done.”
This minority of about 14-15 percent of the student population is connected to a university’s placement on lists like The Princeton Review top 10 party schools list, she said. It’s not a scientific process. The surveys are turned in by students who take pride in remaining on the list — which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And what these particular students lack seems to be an investment in academics.
“You’re never going to eliminate the partying but at least if you have the balance there, they’re going to be more responsible,” Weiss said.
She’s seen universities try a lot of things: create a dry town, implement medical amnesty programs where students can report dangers to their health without worrying about the legal consequences, toughen conduct codes to result in more expulsions and enact ordinances to keep burning fuel like couches away from the outdoors.
“Unfortunately, I don’t know of anything that’s really worked well,” Weiss said.
She sees an important change coming to WVU with a new program that could have long-term positive effects. This year, the University and Morgantown became the first local government and university group to start the application process for the National Safety Council’s Safe Communities America program, which involves measuring and addressing contributing factors to crime and other unsafe situations.
She thinks that the project, which unites various experts in the community, identifies areas that need improvement and works to find solutions, could provide some of the answers sought.
But just looking at all of the issues involved in changing behavior related to alcohol is complex. Some say that lowering the drinking age to 18 would be a step in the right direction. She believes raising the price of alcohol could help lower the volume that each student consumes.
“Really it’s about the abuse [of alcohol],” Weiss said. “It’s not the drinking because kids have been drinking at college since literally the 1800s. It’s the excessive amount of it and the irresponsibility that goes with it.”
Alcohol is the Lubricant
The level of binge drinking among college students nationwide has remained fairly steady since the early 2000s, at around 44 percent according to a National Institutes of Health report. Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks for men or four or more drinks for women in a sitting.
In recent years, following a variety of health promotion programs, WVU saw a reported decrease in binge drinking and increase in non-drinkers from 2010-14 in the student population.
Turning Around the Alcohol Culture
To the right are a few of WVU’s student health programs targeting alcohol abuse. For more information, go to well.wvu.edu .
- The AlcoholEdu online alcohol education program is required for every incoming student.
- The Regret campaign spurs students to think about how they interact with alcohol and to use protective strategies.
- CHOICES tool kit is an interactive team game used in residence halls and elsewhere that helps students identify behaviors to protect themselves in alcohol-related situations.
- The Student Assistance program evaluates and counsels students who have concerns about their use of alcohol or drugs.
The percentage of binge drinkers went from 43 percent to 38 percent, less than the national average, and the percentage of non-drinkers increased from 41 percent to 48 percent.
Alcohol education and intervention became a burgeoning effort at WVU over the last few years, taking a leap forward in the 1990s under President David C. Hardesty Jr. when the weekend alternative to drinking called WVUp All Night was introduced. At the time it was one of the first programs of its kind and was joined by programs such as the resident faculty leader program where faculty members oversaw students in the residence halls, the Student Lot before football games and the first day of school concert FallFest, both of which do not serve alcohol.
Even with these gains, there are significant challenges to curbing underage and binge drinking.
Keith Zullig is interim chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the WVU School of Public Health. He designed interventions for college student drinking during his time at Miami University of Ohio and says research has described what’s called the “college effect,” which says that students who never or rarely drank in high school are likely to carry that into college. Whereas if students drink in high school, that’s likely to increase in college.
One common response after the riots has been the suggestion to sit the kids down and inform them about alcohol’s effects, about how dangerous their behavior is and so on. Zullig said merely providing information doesn’t work. You won’t see mass change in the student population’s behavior.
Programs such AlcoholEdu, which is used at WVU, are important because the online program engages with students on an individual level, providing baseline information on student behavior for the University while challenging students’ expectations and discussing appropriate behavior.
He said there’s a small cluster of students on college campuses who are not likely to change even when alcohol intervention programs are employed. And that’s strongly related, as Weiss said, to destructive behavior.
“A handful of hooligans took away that win from that football team that they worked so hard to earn and to bring home to their students and to their fans.”
If you have a strong relationship with alcohol, there’s a link with violent and
aggressive behavior, he said. The rioting behavior is part of a herd mentality,
which is also very much a part of sporting events, and alcohol becomes the lubricant.
He sees it as a victory when students, even though they may be drinking, are using more protective behaviors such as planning on not driving, alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks or pacing themselves between drinks.
“The good news is that most students don’t have any trouble,” he said. “Most students are largely responsible.”
WVU Dean of Students Corey Farris agrees most of the students on campus won’t riot. When he stood next to police and firefighters for four hours on Oct. 18, he saw that several hundred people were bystanders while a few dozen took active roles. The rest of the 30,000 students weren’t involved at all.
“A handful of hooligans took away that win from that football team that they worked so hard to earn and to bring home to their students and to their fans,” Farris said. “And then we have a group that say, ‘No, no, it’s not about the great win. It’s about me.’”
He said that Gee’s immediate response the day after the rioting set the tone for Farris and his staff to take quick action. They worked quickly to identify those who had committed criminal acts, and are investigating other students who may have had roles beyond the three that were initially expelled.
It is also a priority to influence the 5,000 or 6,000 incoming students every year who don’t know the University’s response to criminal and disorderly behavior, Farris said.
“The new students don’t have the history of knowing that the University will expel them,” he said. “The new students don’t know the history that the police will come in and prosecute them. It is important to deliver the message louder.”
When he talked to students Monday morning, he heard the message that the students were delivering loudly to each other. And it was something he hadn’t heard after previous incidents.
“The response from the students who weren’t involved, it feels very different,” Farris said. “They seem much angrier and more embarrassed about this.” The day after the riots, junior Chris Hickey, of Glen Mills, Pa., sent out a tweet that said, “My name is Chris Hickey and I’m a #RespectfulMountaineer. I love and respect this University and the town in which it resides. #Respect WVU.”
Hickey and fellow marketing junior Deonna Gandy, of Pittsburgh, Pa., wanted the usually softer-spoken campus voices to be heard, so they shared the hashtag with their Twitter followers, asking them to recount how they are respectful Mountaineers.
The #RespectfulMountaineer hashtag spread throughout the WVU community to students, staff, alumni and parents. After three days, more than 700,000 tweets included the hashtag, which appeared on 1.4 million timelines.
Researchers, administrators and Morgantown’s mayor have pointed to the campaign as exactly the kind of positive peer pressure that’s needed from students to influence other students. Gandy says they have to keep it going.
“It’s not just a movement for football season,” she said. “It’s not just a movement for the fall semester … This is reshaping West Virginia University as a whole.”
So the two are working with the University to use the slogan in campus campaigns and want to create a student organization that promotes positive student conduct to keep the effort going long after they graduate.
“We said it thinking that we were alone,” Hickey said of those first tweets, “but we weren’t.”
Hickey and Gandy were among those invited to a meeting with student leaders called by President Gee on Monday afternoon following the incidents.
Jackie Riggleman, a graduate student in sport management from Moorefield, W.Va., said it hit her hard when the president expressed his disappointment in the student body while challenging them to challenge their peers.
Riggleman, who is involved in the official student section for WVU sports called the Mountaineer Maniacs, said that because students are often only in Morgantown for nine months, they may not see themselves as neighbors to law enforcement officers and the rest of the city’s permanent residents.
“We need to create almost a better unity between the City of Morgantown and the University,” she said.
Another student at the meeting with Gee, Steve Orlowski, president of the Mountaineer Maniacs, said student leaders are considering ways to drive the celebration to a more constructive route.
“We’re in the process of looking at other alternatives such as a safe post-game tradition that could take place here on campus after big wins,” said Orlowski, a sport management graduate student from Leonia, N.J.
JOINING WITH MORGANTOWN
Students aren’t the only ones trying to solve these issues. When University and local officials met earlier this year in a town hall meeting on alcohol abuse, they pointed out that state laws haven’t caught up to the needs of today’s population. For example, only Alcohol Beverage Control Administration agents can enforce alcohol provisions inside private clubs, according to the report from the town hall meeting.
University administrators also point to the fact that West Virginia bars close at 3 a.m., later than in surrounding states. This year a bill passed in the West Virginia House of Delegates that included a provision to move closing time to the more common 2 a.m., but the bill died in conference with the senate.
The University and local law enforcement are working to promote a safe, healthy campus, but existing laws are limiting what they can do, said Provost Joyce McConnell, formerly dean of the College of Law.
“It’s almost like we’ve got this perfect storm,” she said. “We’ve got all these young people who have access to a lot of alcohol, and we have laws that make it very difficult for us to police what they’re doing.”
McConnell said an effective response involves the University and town solving this problem together, particularly because the two are so physically connected.
“Absolutely this has to be a collaborative effort between the University and the town … to make sure this never happens again, and also to create a different culture so that it’s not just that we’re trying to take care of the conduct after the fact,” she said.
“I think that’s really the answer. We have to work closely between the town and the University to change the culture, and that might mean trying to change some state laws.”
“As a former athlete, I know what goes into preparing … for a game like that and then to have the backdrop be images of dumpsters rolling down the road and police in riot gear, it was just deflating.”
Morgantown Mayor Jenny Selin sat in on a Student Government Association meeting during the week after the events. She’d heard from residents, as well as from law enforcement and fire responders. She says they’re fatigued from trying to find solutions, which makes it all the more important that Gee and WVU students are appealing to the majority of students to defeat destructive behavior.
She reminded the students how valuable they are to the community and asked them to use their influence on their peers.
At the meeting, a student helped Selin download to her phone the University’s recently acquired mobile application, LiveSafe, which allows the user to make anonymous tips to police. SGA and University Police brought the app to campus, and the student who helped Selin access it said it could be helpful for the community, too.
Selin said the city is discussing a new measure to increase public safety: creating a system where large parties and tailgates are reported to officials beforehand so authorities can be prepared. She said it’s similar to the current requirement that fraternities and sororities have permits for hosting large events at their houses.
Selin is the town’s mayor, but she’s also coordinator of the WVU Community Design Team, which was created to use communities’ strengths to help them improve and thrive economically.
“We are so closely aligned that the only good solutions involve collaboration and working together,” Selin said of the city and University. “I think it’s a very serious issue. We do not want anyone hurt or anyone’s property destroyed. I would like to do whatever we can do to funnel this celebration into positive celebration without the negative aspects.”
ALUMNI HEED THE CALL
One Morgantown resident felt keenly what the behavior meant for his city and his state. J.T. Thomas, BS, ’00, Athletic Coaching Education, was a linebacker at WVU in the early ’90s and has lived in Morgantown for nearly 20 years. After the riots became headline news, he spoke to a lifelong West Virginian he knew who said, “‘J.T., we just don’t know how to win.’” And he believes that.
“It just hurt me to the core. It really did,” he said. “And I guarantee that most West Virginians may have thought initially it started with just a wild bunch of kids. But when you sit down and think about the amount of physical damage that it did and then the damage that was done to the reputation of this University and state, the impact is just overbearing, and this University deserves better.”
As someone who has played on Mountaineer Field, he’s particularly disappointed.
“As a former athlete, I know what goes into preparing … for a game like that and then to have the backdrop be images of dumpsters rolling down the road and police in riot gear, it was just deflating,” Thomas said.
Several states away in Texas, Nancy DiPaolo, BS, ’76, Economics, awoke on Sunday morning to news stories and a social media feed full of tales of partying at WVU that was unlike what she experienced as a student in the post- Vietnam War years. Just days before, she and other alumni had worked through weeks of recruiting events in her current hometown of Houston.
“It brings about a dichotomy in that we’re trying to tell parents why their students should come to WVU versus what they are seeing on the news,” DiPaolo said.
And the negative influence isn’t confined to just students. She’s not the only alumnus who’s heard other alumni glorify behavior such as couch burning. She thinks that’s a conversation that needs to take place where alumni talk and gather across the country, too.
“I think we’ve really got to speak out,” she said. “I think the people that care, if we hear somebody say something about burning a couch, we’ve got to be bold enough in a nice way to say, ‘Hey, you know you might want to rephrase that. Not everybody views that as a joke.’”
She also hears the blame being laid not only on destructive people but on people who are not from West Virginia. And that’s just not accurate for the legions of WVU alumni who live around the nation and world, she said.
“We need to emphasize that our student population is about 50/50 [in-state vs. out-of-state],” said DiPaolo, who’s originally from Logan, West Virginia. “Being a Mountaineer isn’t about being a local West Virginian. Being a Mountaineer means being well-educated, well-rounded and working together to honor and respect our University and its traditions, our community and our Mountaineer family.”
Every person interviewed for this story was in agreement. They don’t want this image of violence to persist because it’s not reflective of their lives, the jobs they hold or the friends they’ve made.
The day before the WVU–Texas Christian University football game, President E. Gordon Gee sent a video message to the alumni community encouraging them to take a stand. He asked for their ideas and their engagement on how to change the culture at WVU. “It will take all of us to affect change at this institution,” says Gee. “It is time for us to work together to create long-term solutions.”
So what are you going to do?
Here are some ways you can help show the true spirit of a Mountaineer:
- Alumni can join with local Alumni Association chapters and the Mountaineer Parents Club to engage in positive celebrations and events.
- Use the #RespectfulMountaineer hashtag when sharing school pride on Twitter.
- Students can engage with campus groups such as Mountaineer Maniacs and Student Government Association that are working to spur positive behavior and celebrations.
- Share your ideas on how we can change the culture at WVU with President E. Gordon Gee at Presidentsoffice@mail.wvu.edu.