City and WVU officials agree that culture in Morgantown needs to be changed to stop fires

Some members of Morgantown’s City Council met today with the city’s fire chief, fire marshall and police chief, as well as several representatives from West Virginia University to discuss how to prevent students from setting street fires.

The thing they all agreed on – the culture needs to change.

Morgantown City Manager Terrance Moore started the meeting by saying it was originally meant to be for officials to discuss protocols and follow-up strategies for the fires that were set during St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Morgantown. They then extended the invitation to some property owners and representatives from West Virginia University.

City and university officials are used to fires taking place after games, but St. Patrick’s Day took them by surprise, Moore said.

“It’s gotten to a point where Morgantown is having this expeience not because of WVU students specifically, but because of the reputation,” Moore said. “[The problem has gone] above and beyond WVU students, and it’s been that way for a while.”

Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston was given the floor first. He said the department had every available resource out working the night of St. Patrick’s Day – day and afternoon shifts stayed over and the evening shift came in early. The city currently has 62 police officers.

One thing he wanted to make clear is how officers handle situations like a large crowd of people rioting. In videos posted online, people can be seen throwing objects at officers. Preston was asked why those people weren’t arrested.

“We don’t have the manpower to make all those arrests,” Preston said.

When an officer makes an arrest, that takes them off the streets patrolling for 1.5 to 2.5 hours. Instead, officers try to stop or clear out the large crowd first, then address smaller issues.

Preston said he still had reserves he didn’t have to use, but he wasn’t satisfied with conduct of rioters or the results. Tear gas and bean bags were not used to clear out the crowds because overreaction would have escalated the situation.

Deputy Mayor Bane then asked if the police were helping the firefighters because some were being restricted from reaching fires and had objects thrown at them.

Morgantown Fire Chief Mark Casavasos said that was a common occurrence for them.

However, there were several areas where firefighters and police officers were on the scene working together, Preston said.

Preston blamed the culture of Morgantown for making people think it’s acceptable to burn couches, pointing out that businesses sell candles in the shape of couches (see below).

“We’re allowing and perpetuating this culture,” Preston said. “One bad weekend is only symptomatic of the culture.”

Corey Farris, WVU Director of Housing and Interim Dean of Students, said the university is not happy with the incidents, and that it’s not what they’re teaching students to do.

According to the student code of conduct, the university can take actions against students who break the law on or off campus. Once it has been reported to the university that a student has broke the law, the student is sent an e-mail, and within about two weeks will have to attend a student conduct hearing. The decision is then made whether or not to suspend or expel the student.

The university and city police alert the university when students break the law. Farris said they also catch students through posts on Facebook and by reading the newspaper.

Assistant Vice President of University Communications Becky Lofstead said that the university needs to be more proactive by publicizing the number of students who are expelled or suspended so that students understand that there are consequences.

Both Farris and WVU Police Chief Bob Roberts agreed that alcohol is the reason fires are started.

There were “far less problems” when bars were open to 2 a.m. instead of 3 a.m., Roberts said. Now the WVU police are doing more DUI arrests than ever.

“You have a tradition,” Casavasos said. “As much as you don’t want it, you have it. It’s not going away. I can see it carrying on 20, 30, 40 years.

“The problem won’t go to sleep following large scale events. We’ll continue to have this problem. We have to change this culture. The more we try to push it, the more they’ll do it. This is becoming a culture with them and a way to celebrate.”

Chief Casavasos had three suggestions to reduce fires:

  1. Give jail time for setting fires
  2. Double fines from $1,000 to $2,000
  3. Bring in the West Virginia State Fire Marshall because they are able to make arrests, unlike the city fire marshal

He continued to say that over the 14-15 years he’s served as a firefighter, the biggest problem is house parties, and he’s seeing them grow. He’s pulled 200-300 people out of two-bedroom apartments, and at one residence in Sunnyside there were 1,000 people inside.

The issue with having so many people in the houses is that the overcrowding could cause the house to collapse. Many of the houses are very old and aren’t built to hold that amount of people.

Bane expressed his concern already over next year’s home game against the University of Oklahoma and what kind of chaos will occur if WVU wins. He suggested a campaign going into the next school year that would show statistics of students suspended/expelled for setting fires.

Lofstead said they are already in process of doing something along those lines.

Hearings will begin next week for students arrested during St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

– Leann

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Sunnyside Up to form advisory committee to teach students to ‘learn not to burn’

Sunnyside Up lost 50 percent of its funding during March. To make matters worse, thousands of dollars worth of damage to the Sunnyside neighborhood took place over St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

Sunnyside Up Executive Director Jim Hunt said of the 140 Dumpsters that are in Sunnyside, 40 of them have been burnt and need to be repainted. It costs between $150-200 to paint one Dumpster.

Some of the new sidewalks were also damaged. In summer 2011, sidewalks were replaced throughout Sunnyside. Hunt said that replacing one piece that was burnt is estimated to cost $5,000.

“It’s an expensive thing,” Hunt said. “The idea of it is – are you going to go and replace this brand new sidewalk that had a burnt place that will cause a weak spot? If we don’t replace it – which we probably won’t because of budget issues – you have a brand new sidewalk just put in and it’s already damaged.”

When asked about how the recent cuts will affect Sunnyside Up, Hunt said that it will continue to operate based on the funds that it’s provided.

“In some ways we don’t have much choice,” Hunt said. “We do the things we need to do in our mission based upon what money is provided. Obviously, some of the things we currently do will have priority. The board will have to determine which ones they want to do and which they won’t be able to do.”

One of the fairly costly services the group provides is employing Manpower and contract workers to remove debris from sidewalks and graffiti from buildings.

“Those items are fairly costly and we’ll have to determine how much of that we’ll have to do going forward,” Hunt said.

Sunnyside Up’s mission isn’t to eliminate fires and graffiti, but to reduce and control them, Hunt said.

With graffiti, the goal is to have it painted over within two days of spotting it. Hunt said that it’s impossible to completely eliminate it, but if they keep up on repainting, it will reduce the problem.

In order to try to eliminate street and furniture fires, Sunnyside Up is creating an advisory committee for Learn Not to Burn. (press release available here)

Hunt said that at 61-years-old, he is a not a peer to West Virginia University students. The advisory committee will be made up of current and former students who understand the mindset of their peers.

The idea came about right after St. Patrick’s Day weekend – Hunt said he had e-mails and phone calls from a couple dozen people asking what they could do to help.

“They love the community, the university, and they feel like they have something to give back,” Hunt said.

Pure enforcement alone won’t stop the burning, he said. There are approximately 4,000 students living in Sunnyside and between 10-12 police officers on duty for the whole city.

“What we need is people who care about the community and will discourage burning – you can drink, you can party, you can scream, but you cannot burn,” Hunt said.

In just a few minutes, things can get out of a control. This past weekend, nine people died from a house fire in Charleston. There were no working smoke detectors in the home.

Hunt said he doesn’t want an incident like this to have to happen in order for people to learn it’s not okay to set fires.

“Burning is just not a acceptable way of celebrating or partying,” Hunt said.

City officials were upset over the “I’m Shmacked” video that was filmed in Morgantown on St. Patrick’s Day weekend. The video mostly showed students drinking, but there were also some brief scenes of fires. Hunt said he thinks there’s been a bit of overreaction to the video.

“For the first three months of the school year, Sunnyside had been surprisingly without incident,” Hunt said. “During the first three months of 2012, we’ve had students who volunteered – 300 who volunteered [to clean up]. A lot of good stuff happening.”

But then 35 fires were set St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

“We had two days with [fires] that could have been much worse,” Hunt said. “It’s not to say it wasn’t serious. … For 88 of the 90 days, they were as good as students as you could find.”

Hunt said there would have been fires on the weekend anyway, but he heard reports of people driving around ahead of the I’m Shmacked film crew, and that maybe only a handful of people were actually starting the fires.

“If you’re going to bash the students for those two days, you have to give them credit for the 88 days they weren’t burning,” Hunt said.

Below is Sunnyside Up’s Facebook status, which was posted Monday afternoon.

– Leann

Three Thursday morning street fires damage two parked vehicles

For some reason, there were three street fires early Thursday morning in Morgantown.

The Morgantown Fire Marshal released this press release today:

Investigators from the Morgantown Fire and Police Departments returned to the scene of three intentionally set fires that occurred early Thursday morning. Two street fires were reported on Jones Avenue at 1:24 a.m. which contained furniture, garbage, and other unknown debris. The fires damaged two parked vehicles, a Ford Explorer and a Chevrolet Cobalt, each with Pennsylvania registration. Both vehicles sustained several thousand dollars in damages.
A dumpster was set on fire early this morning at approximately 3:30 a.m. in McLane Alley.  Anyone with information about the fires should call the Morgantown Arson Tip-line at 304-225-3586.

McLane Alley and Jones Avenue are both in the Sunnyside area, so I assume the fires were a result of a late night party, but why during the middle of the week? Yes, the weather’s been amazing, but normal people don’t usually set things on fire just because the weather is nice. Well, normal people don’t set things on fire when a college team wins a game either, I guess.

One really disturbing trend with all of this is how proud some students are of this behavior because they seem to feel it proves that West Virginia University is a party school. (As can be seen here.)

Another trend that’s upsetting is seeing students attack anyone who states publicly that the behavior is embarrassing. The Daily Athenaeum’s Managing Editor John Terry wrote a great column explaining why he feels the actions make the university look bad (Irresponsible students in video deserve to be ‘Shmacked’). There are comments telling him to get off his high horse, this isn’t Harvard, anyone who is embarrassed isn’t a true Mountaineer, etc.

The maker of the controversial I’m Shmacked video, Yofray Ray (no relation), even commented on the column.

As a current WVU student, I’m going to have to disagree with his last statement.

– Leann

Morgantown City Council cuts an additional $25,000 from Sunnyside Up’s funding

Morgantown City Council members were very upset over the events that took place this weekend – 35 fires were set around town as part of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Around 10 p.m. Tuesday night, a video was released by a group called I’m Shmacked, which has been traveling to 20 different college campuses making films of students partying.

Twitter exploded as students waited for the video to be posted on YouTube. Within 13 minutes, #imshmackedwvu was trending worldwide.

Meanwhile in council chambers, members expressed frustration and tried to think of ways to solve the problem. According to MetroNews, Deputy Mayor Ron Bane thinks West Virginia University isn’t harsh enough on students, and more serious penalties need to be put in place to send a message.

“I’m so angry right now, it’s ridiculous. I don’t think any of us should sit by in this room and wait for (WVU) to say, ‘oh, Johnny got a slap on the wrist,'” Bane said. “It’s enough. I want to put jail time back in. I’m all for that. Send them down to Harrison County and let them sit there for a month, and they will miss a month of classes. Well, tough.  You made the decision of being stupid.”

However, it seems that this may not be a WVU-specific problem. According to an article in the Charleston Gazette, Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston said several thousand students from other schools flocked to Morgantown for spring break. One street fire was surrounded by Penn State students and the crowd at one rowdy house party was mainly University of Maryland students.

I’m not exactly sure how he’s gotten those numbers or can even say where people were from. I don’t think people normally volunteer what college they attend when cops are breaking up parties.

Besides discussing ways to punish students, council also discussed budget cuts again.

Earlier this month, council voted to cut Sunnyside Up’s budget from $100,000 per year to $75,000. During Tuesday’s meeting, council voted to cut an additional $25,000, according to MetroNews.

This will cut Sunnyside Up’s total budget from $200,000 to $100,000. West Virginia University matches the funds the city gives, meaning it will cut funding from $100,000 to $50,000, as well.

A Morgantown firefighter puts out a Dumpter fire in Sunnyside, near McLane Manor early Sunday morning. You see see the Sunnyside Up logo painted on the Dumpster. Sunnyside Up uses some of its funding to paint the Dumpsters.

(Photo credit: The Dominion Post – Jason DeProspero)

Since many of the fires took place in Sunnyside, I contacted Sunnyside Up’s Executive Director Jim Hunt to see what he thought about this past weekend’s events, which he described as “disappointing.”

“We realize that this is an ongoing effort and something that needs reinforced on a regular basis,” he said. “The dumpster fires were significant and caused several thousands of dollars damage.

“As with most issues of student behavior, a small minority damages the reputation of the whole. Students at WVU are on par with most schools, but a small core creates the poor image that we have to live with. New students see the ‘image’ and are inclined to follow some of these bad examples.”

I called Hunt earlier to ask about the new funding cuts that took place last night, but as of 3:35 p.m., I haven’t heard back from him yet. I will update again once I speak with him.

– Leann

St. Patrick’s Day mayhem wasn’t just happening in Morgantown

Morgantown already has a bad reputation due to multiple instances of couch fires over the years. Unfortunately, this tradition continues because many students consider it “awesome” when it’s actually arson and, more importantly, illegal.

If you haven’t been following, more than 30 fires were set in Morgantown during St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

But I just wanted to point out that Morgantown, W.Va. wasn’t the only place in the world where people went crazy on St. Patrick’s Day.

The National Post describes events in Ontario, Canada around the student district at Fanshawe College as “five chaotic hours.”

” … violent crowds of as many as 1000 people tore apart fences, showered police and firefighters with bricks and bottles and set fire to a CTV news vehicle, which later exploded.”

Eight students were suspended, 11 people were arrested, and police are checking Facebook and Twitter to find more rioters.

The photo below is from the National Post’s website. It is a screen shot of a Youtube video that shows a CTV news truck exploding into a fireball after being set on fire in London, Ontario Saturday night.

(photo credit: The National Post)

The article is really interesting, and has several photos, as well as a video of the riots. Check it out – Eight students suspended after St. Patrick’s Day riots rock London, Ont.

Like in Morgantown, the weather was warm and people started drinking early, according to The Globe and Mail.

(photo credit: The Globe and Mail)

The Globe and Mail described the event as “the largest riot in the southwestern Ontario city’s history.”

Throughout the afternoon, the crowd kept growing, until more than 1,000 people filled the streets. Police arrived, hoping to control the festivities. As evening fell, officers held riot shields and advanced on revellers. Those who were in the way, eyewitnesses said, were pushed to the ground.

The crowd fought back, pelting police with beer bottles and wrenching two-by-fours from fences to smash cruisers. Officers retreated, with revellers chasing their cars.

Then, things really got crazy.

Celebrating their “victory” and chanting “We won! We won,” the crowd overturned a CTV sport utility vehicle near the end of the street and set it on fire. The fuel tank exploded, scorching a woman, who fled shirtless into a nearby yard, witnesses said. Bystanders treated her with ice packs.

For some more news coverage on the rioting, check out this video – Video: St. Patrick’s Day riot in London, Ont.

The Globe and Mail also created a great Storify story on the riots. This includes tweets and YouTube videos.

– Leann

More than 30 fires were set in Morgantown Saturday night

Students got a little crazy Saturday night in Morgantown. Typically, students party a little too hard and set fires after football or basketball games. But this time, it was just a really warm St. Patrick’s Day.

I ventured downtown around 6 p.m. with some friends to get dinner, and there were already people who were obviously drunk. Someone even threw beads at us, which was confusing because I thought that was more of a Mardi Gra thing.

From our seats at the Brew Pub, we saw several handcuffed people being escorted by police.

That being said, it wasn’t surprising when I saw news stories about what exactly happened.

According to WBOY, the Morgantown Fire Department is investigating 35 street fires.

WBOY attributes a release from the West Virginia Fire Marshal’s office that stated the fires began around 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, and the last one was reported at 5:05 a.m. Sunday. Of the 35 fires being investigated, only 24 were reported to MECCA 911 – the rest were found when responding to other fires.

Here’s a breakdown of the fires as of Monday:

  • 18 dumpster fires
  • 17 street fires
  • 1 vehicle fire
  • a damaged semi-trailer at Ervin’s Towing on Kingwood Street was set on fire, which melted the siding of a nearby building
  • other properties damaged by fires include dumpster enclosures, a fence around a dumpster and a vehicle’s taillights were melted by a nearby fire

For those who weren’t as “lucky” as me to see people act irresponsibly, here’s a photo floating around Facebook right now.

(photo credit: I’m Shmacked Facebook Page)

There’s also been several videos posted on YouTube, as well.

According to The Dominion Post:

The MECCA 911 log showed most of the activity happening after midnight Saturday, with Morgantown firefighters being dispatched to more than 20 rubbish/Dumpster fires, the majority in the Sunnyside area.

The article also states that many students living in Sunnyside were issued tickets by the Morgantown Police Department for not cleaning up after their parties.

Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston told the DP that he did not have a total number of tickets, but more than 40 had been issued in one area of town. Fines are $100 per day until the trash is cleaned up.

If you would like to see some videos of the destruction in action, I used Storify to collect several videos from YouTube – St. Patrick’s Day Destruction in Morgantown.

– Leann

UPDATE (6 p.m.) : Here is a screen shot of WVU Vice President for Student Affairs Ken Gray’s e-mail to the student body regarding the conduct over the weekend:

UPDATE (10:50 p.m.): Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston told Metro News that a total of 33 criminal charges have been filed in connection to arrests made during out-of-control parties. More specifically:

  • 8 counts of obstruction of a public officer
  • 6 counts of disorderly conduct
  • 5 counts of public intoxication
  • 4 counts of possession of a controlled substance
  • 4 counts of driving under the influence
  • 4 counts of underage possession or consumption of alcohol
  • 1 count of destruction of property

Police issued more than 100 criminal citations Saturday night, Metro News reported. More were issued Monday to residents who didn’t pick up the trash leftover from the parties in their yards.

According to an article in the Charleston Gazette:

According to Morgantown city code, burning couches or starting Dumpster fires can constitute a charge of felony fourth-degree arson. Conviction of a fourth-degree offense, or attempted arson, carries one to two years in prison, a fine of as much as $205,000, or both. If the suspect charged is a WVU student, they must go before the Student Conduct Board, where they could be suspended or expelled from the University.

News Round-Up March 16, 2012

I apologize for the lack of posts this week. I’ve been sick, and decided to try to take it easy instead of stressing myself out over updating.

Unfortunately, that means I missed this week’s Sunnyside Up board of directors meeting. According to the Dominion Post, the board discussed a plan to improve sidewalks and lighting on McLane Ave. The full article is available here – “Group looks to upgrade McLane Ave.

Also in the news this week:

  • New Jersey resident charged with malicious burning in Morgantown – WBOY –  David F. Hotaling, of West Caldwell, N.J., was charged with malicious burning for a fire that damaged a sidewalk on Grant Avenue. Hotaling was cited at approximately 3:03 a.m. on March 12 by Lt. Jason Quinn.
  • Officials can’t tell what caused Mason St. blazeThe Dominion Post – The vacant apartment that caught fire is owned by Tina Walden, Gary Walden‘s wife. Here’s a screen shot of the brief:
  • Bedbug cost? $65 per UNL residentKearneyHub.com –  The University of Nebraska-Lincoln spent nearly $400,000 — roughly $65 per resident — to track down and eradicate bedbugs in its student housing.

– Leann