UMass, community coalition looks to Fort Collins, Colorado, program for registering off-campus parties

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer
Monday, February 29, 2016

AMHERST — In Fort Collins, Colorado, off-campus students at Colorado State University and city residents can register parties they intend to hold on Fridays and Saturdays and holidays popular for gatherings, such as St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween and New Year’s Eve.

For those whose parties make so much noise that neighbors are bothered by the decibel level, being enrolled in this registration program can be the difference between getting a courtesy call from the city’s emergency dispatchers — allowing the party hosts to bring their event under control on their own — and being paid a visit by officers who might deliver a costly noise ticket.

With Amherst continuing to face quality-of-life issues related to University of Massachusetts students living in off-campus housing, town and university officials are discussing launching a similar pilot program in the fall.
The pilot program would be modeled after Fort Collins, a city with 151,000 residents and more than 20,000 of the university’s students living off campus. It is being developed after extensive study by a subcommittee of the Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce High-Risk Drinking, a partnership between UMass and surrounding towns that includes representation from elected officials, police and fire departments, and landlords and property managers.

“It’s a way to encourage more responsible behavior in neighborhoods,” said Select Board member Constance Kruger. “It’s not a license to party.” 
She and Police Capt. Jennifer Gundersen are the co-chairwomen of the coalition’s municipal strategies subcommittee. 

The anticipated benefits to the community are a peer education component accompanying the registration, which would focus on responsible behavior, and fewer police officers heading to noise complaint calls, leaving them more time to respond to more critical issues, such as domestic disturbances, fights and break-ins.

“If we can conserve on-the-ground police resources, and not have to send them out, it’s a real benefit,” Kruger said.

Fort Collins program 

In Fort Collins, students register parties at the Off-Campus Life office, are given a packet of information and have a conversation with staff. Then, emergency dispatchers enter the list of party hosts, including contact information, into a database.

If a noise complaint is made, a courtesy call is given to the person who registered the party, with 20 minutes allowed to bring the party under control and quiet down those in attendance.

The program has been successful since it started in April 2009, said Emily Allen, the community liaison for both Colorado State and the city of Fort Collins.

She describes a “trifecta” of benefits from party registration. For students, if a party gets out of control, it typically means getting a warning from a dispatcher rather than a citation of up to $1,000 from an officer. For police, it’s ensuring officers are not spending time on low-priority calls. For neighbors, it’s about getting an immediate response to their complaint.

Between August and May, students are the primary users, but in the summer months, residents will use the program for high-school graduation parties, backyard barbecues and weddings.
 
From the perspective of UMass, which would handle the administration of the program, it can be both a party management tool and an incentive-based program for students, said Tony Maroulis, director of external relations for the university. Students using the program would cut down on their risk of being arrested.

“The community benefit is the Police Department wouldn’t be dispatched to the scene,” Maroulis said.

How it would work 

As currently proposed, a student interested in holding a party would apply in person at the Off Campus Student Service center, based in the Student Union. There would be a peer-to-peer education component, with trained staff, as well as an information packet, just like in Fort Collins.

Police Chief Scott Livingstone said a lot of thought has gone into developing a program for Amherst. “From our perspective, it would reduce responses,” he added.

Livingstone said he appreciates that students who register parties will know more about their responsibilities as party hosts.

“One thing I like about it is an educational component,” Livingstone said.

Liability concern 
But Livingstone said he is worried about liabilities, including if someone attending a registered party is injured.

Allen said this is not an issue in Fort Collins. If a disturbance is in progress, such as a fight spilling into street or people shooting off fireworks, immediate police response still occurs, she said.

In the nearly seven years of the program, 3,347 parties have been registered, mostly by students, and more than four in five registered parties required no action.

“Eighty-five percent have no issues and no warnings, which we like to say is due to the front-end education,” Allen said.

Halloween saw more than 80 students register parties. And while there were warnings, no citations were issued at any of them, Allen said.

Many of the details of the Amherst program are not yet ready, including whether those registered would have to be at least 21 years old and how big a party needs to be before it should be registered.

“We hope students will use it because it’s another piece in the tool bag of having safe gatherings and being responsible,” Maroulis said.

There are also no cost estimates, though Maroulis said many of the educational aspects related to parties are in place.

“This falls in line with what Off Campus Student Services is already doing,” Maroulis said.

Allen said the main expense she is aware of is to promote the program. “The biggest cost to it is the marketing,” Allen said.

The subcommittee will do focus group meetings with students and neighbors prior to beginning.

“Before the program pilots, everyone will have to sign off on this, the administration, town manager and police,” Maroulis said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.