Local news round-up May 7, 2012

Classes and finals may be over, but people in Morgantown are still setting fires. According to the Morgantown Police Department, three suspects were arrested for throwing items into fires over the weekend. According to the press release:

On May 5, 2012, Mark David Euga Jr., 20 years of age was arrested at the corner of North Spruce Street and Fife Street as he was throwing combustible items on a street fire. Mr. Euga was also charged with underage consumption at the time of this incident.

On May 5, 2012, Kyle G. Whelen, 20 years of age was arrested at the corner of Dallas and Forest Street as he was throwing a couch on a street fire. Mr. Whelen was also charged with underage consumption at the time of this incident.

On May 5, 2012, Justin David Myers, 21 years of age was cited for throwing combustible material onto a fire that was burning in a dumpster at the corner of 3rd Avenue and McClain Alley.

This reminded me to check in with West Virginia University officials to see when they would be releasing the numbers of expulsions and suspensions for this year. The numbers will be ready next week. According to Assistant Dean of Students Melanie Cook, the numbers will show total violations and sanctions for academic and behavioral violations.

In other words, they won’t state how many students were expelled specifically for fire-related activity. When I asked how that would risk identifying students, Cook responded, “Our University counsel has advised us against doing so; they think it could be possible for others to identify them.”

Recently the Dominion Post has published a couple updates on stories I’ve been following.

  • Landlord ordered to pay $20K – In February 2008, Morgantown landlord Gary Walden settled a civil lawsuit by agreeing to pay $175,000 to tenants he was accused of sexually harassing or groping, and a $50,000 fine for violating the West Virginia Fair Housing Act. As part of the settlement, Walden was barred from nearly all contact with tenants for eight years, and if he had to make contact with a tenant he was required to fill out an incident report within 12 hours for the West Virginia Human Rights Commission to review. In September 2008, the Human Rights Commission alleged that Walden violated the terms of the settlement by harassing tenants, having contact with tenants when he wasn’t supposed to, and by not providing or filing some documents required by the settlement. The hearings were held between September and December 2008, but the judge has just recently ruled Walden to be contempt of the settlement agreement in four areas: 1) Intentionally initiated direct contact with tenants and improperly entered leased dwellings; 2) Failed to maintain complete and timely records related to tenant contact and dwelling entry; 3) Failed to maintain and provide tenant information; 4) Failed to provide notices of Fair Housing Rights to tenants. Walden was ordered to pay $5,000 for each violation to the Human Rights Commission. In February 2012, Walden was charged with conspiracy and entering without breaking after a tenant woke up to find him sitting on her bed and rubbing her leg while she slept. According to the DP’s article, that case is still pending.

And if anyone is interested, I have completed my Master’s research project, “Inspecting Sunnyside” – Creating a Blog About Off-Campus Student Housing and Student Issues. It’s now available to view on wvuScholar. Also, I’m graduating. Finally.

– Leann

Advertisements

West Virginia University’s number of expulsions in 2003 vs. 2005

While doing research for my thesis tonight, I found an article that I’ve been trying to find for a long time.

I remembered when I was in undergrad a freshman’s car was flipped and destroy as part of some celebrations after a big win. However, I couldn’t remember which time. I was in undergrad from 2002-2006, and there were at least three times I can remember fires being set. After West Virginia University’s win at Virginia Tech in 2002, fires were set in Morgantown. In 2003, there were fires set again when WVU beat Virginia Tech at home. And then in 2005 there were fires after a big basketball win. I don’t keep up with sports, so I couldn’t remember what game it was.

So tonight I found the golden article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review – “West Virginia expels 11 for rowdiness.”

Following the 2003 Virginia Tech win, more than 100 fires were set in Morgantown. More than 40 students were identified as being a part of those fires, but WVU only expelled 7, according to the article.

In 2005, 16 students were arrested or cited by Morgantown police and fire officials for violations such as illegal burning and public intoxication. Telephone poles were scorched and four cars were flipped.

(In the photo below, the person marked “me” is not actually me, but the person who took the photo.)

(Photo credit: http://www.rhythmism.com/forum/showthread.php?t=20828)

Of those 16 students, 11 were expelled. The other five were expected to face suspension or probation.

The article also mentioned that following the 2005 incident Morgantown considered a 17-step plan to deal unruly crowds, such as purchasing a traveling temporary holding facility so officers are not taken off the streets when making arrests.

Last month when city officials met with WVU officials, Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston said the main reason why they have to try to get rid of the large crowds instead of just starting to arrest people is because it takes officers off the street for 1.5 to 2.5 hours for one arrest.

What happened to that 17-step plan? Now I’m wondering what the other 16 steps are. I can’t find anything right now, but I’m going to keep looking. Does anyone remember anything about the plan?

– Leann

Mold at Rowan University / Update on West Virginia mold bill

Mold has been increasingly becoming an issue in Morgantown over the last year, and other areas are experiencing the problem, too.

In Glassboro, N.J., students are upset that mold isn’t being removed fast enough in the student townhouses at Rowan University.

According to the article on myfoxphilly.com, “University officials told students about the mold in this letter last month admitting they knew about the problem since last September.”

Despite knowing about the mold since September, university officials waited six months to alert students. They told the news station that the “problem is bigger than they first thought and they need more people to clean it all up.”

NJ.com says that “A Monroe Township-based environmental consultant has released a report alleging widespread mold contamination throughout the ventilation systems of 109 of the 113 townhouses on Rowan University’s campus.” Of those 113, 70 percent had “heavy to excessive” mold.

Edward Knorr — the principal environmental/health investigator with Quality Environmental Concepts who has been contracted by Rowan for 18 years — said after he performed mold investigations this winter, he advised Rowan officials about the problem and urged them to conduct further evaluations. Knorr said officials refused and banned him from the university.

However, Rowan University spokesman Joe Cardona says they are not ignoring any of these recommendations and are actually following the protocol laid out by Knorr. In addition, no students have reported negative effects from mold at this time, Cardona said.

Knorr said that a student had reported mold on her bedpost. After removal, mold kept returning, leading him to believe that it must have been coming through the heating system. When he looked inside the HVAC, it was coated with mold.

Mold on an HVAC system at the Rowan townhouses. (Photo credit: NJ.com)

So far, 24 units have been cleaned – 10 during winter break and 14 during spring break. Cardona said some things will be left until summer, “but only because it’s not harmful or disturbing students in any way.”

During West Virginia’s legislative session this year, members of West Virginia University’s Student Government Association worked to try to get a bill passed that would make landlords more accountable for removing mold.

House Bill 4425 died in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

I contacted Earl Hewitt, the SGA’s off-campus housing director who worked on creating the bill with members of WVU’s student legal services and the environmental health and safety staff, to find out what he plans to do next since the bill was not passed.

Hewitt said the next step for him is to get in touch with Sen. Robert D. Beach (D – Monongalia County), in order to build a better relationship with him for next session to get more pull in the senate. He also sent emails to the senators who sat on the subcommittee, and Beach was the only one to respond. He said he wants to be persistent with them to figure out what seemed to be the problems with the bill.

Another step Hewitt plans to take is to set up a meeting with people who were involved over the past year with drafting the bill to find “the best way to attack for next session.”

I did have some more follow-up questions for Hewitt, but he has not yet responded. When/if he does, I’ll be sure to update again.

-Leann

WVU won’t release expulsion numbers until May

When West Virginia University officials met with Morgantown city officials last month to discuss what to do about students starting fires, 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.

During the meeting, WVU officials said that students who were arrested during St. Patrick’s Day weekend would have their student conduct hearings the first week back from spring break, which was last week.

Students who were arrested could either be expelled or suspended during their conduct meetings.

Yesterday I e-mailed Lofstead to see if I could have the number of expulsions and suspensions related to the events surrounding St. Patrick’s Day. She responded today that the university “will aggregate the [numbers] for infringements for the semester, most likely, and get those routed in May – so as not to take a chance of revealing the identity of certain individuals.”

I understand the concern with not wanting to accidentally identify students. However, WVU officials said they wanted to be more proactive with getting the numbers out so students will understand they can’t just break the law and not be punished. Will releasing the number two months later still have an impact?

Also, it seems WVU will only be releasing a total for the entire semester and won’t specifically say how many expulsions/suspensions are related to the St. Patrick’s Day events. I have no idea how many students are expelled or suspended each semester, and didn’t have any luck finding that out with a quick Google search. I’ll keep checking, and will update if I find anything out.

– Leann

Student dies after falling from High Street apartment

West Virginia University student Brian Weithenauer died Sunday morning after falling from a platform located outside a top-floor apartment into an alley. The apartment was above the nightclub Rain on High Street.

The 19-year-old Weithenauer was from Toms River, N.J.

A bell-ringing ceremony will be held soon in his honor, according to The Daily Athenaeum.

According to an article in the Dominion Post, Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston said Weithenauer fell into the alley between the Monongalia Magistrate Court building and the building that houses Rain around 1 a.m. The alley is only accessible through the bar.

I was downtown earlier and decided to get some pictures of the area, but at the time I didn’t know it was in an alley only accessible through the bar. However, you can see from the photos that there isn’t a visible alley between Rain and the other buildings.

Rain is located at 250 High Street. The silver door to the right of the main door is the entrance for the apartments.

On the backside of the building that houses Rain is the Monongalia County Magistrate Court and Mid-Nite Adult, which is located on the right side of the white fence.

Rain’s owner, Janet Amores, told the Dominion Post that she was out of town, but a manager told her that Weithenauer was attending a party in an apartment upstairs and did not enter Rain. Rain is an 18 and over nightclub, according to DubVNightlife.com.

Preston said no foul play is expected, but they will continue to investigate. Morgantown Chief Code Enforcement Officer Mike Stone told the Dominion Post his office will “probably check the building for code violations,” after the police complete their investigation. Outdoor platforms are required to have railings.

No platforms were visible from the front or back of the buildings on street-level.

According to the city of Morgantown’s rental property list, the apartments at 240-250 High Street are owned by Inner City Pro Real. There are two units, and the rental license expires Dec. 20, 2013. The units were last inspected Dec. 20, 2010. Those are the only units listed for that company.

A quick search of Google and the Yellow Pages showed no results for “Inner City Pro Real.”

Amores told the Dominion Post that Phil Shuman owns the building.

Another resident of Morgantown fell from the apartments above Rain just eight months ago.

On August 25, 2011, Brianna Smith fell out of a window from a fifth-story apartment above Rain. Smith had broken toes, broken foot bones, a shattered heel, liver trauma, three broken teeth, brain hemorrhaging and various bruises, cuts and scratches. She lost 9 inches of her intestine, had 10 staples put in her head and had to have her ear re-attached, according to a story that ran in the Dominion Post.

Preston said foul play wasn’t suspected.

Smith said she had no recollection of how she got to the apartment or how she fell from the window. The last thing she remembered was dancing at Rain, and the next thing she remembered was waking up in a hospital bed, confused and frantically trying to pull out IVs.

It took police several hours to identify Smith because she couldn’t communicate and didn’t have her ID on her. She was identified when police released a description of her tattoos and her roommate recognized them and called police.

Smith had a high alcohol content which surprised her because she only remembered having one shot. She thought she may have been drugged because her friends said she started acting weird and disappeared. She then went with people she didn’t know to the apartment upstairs, and no one said they saw her fall from the window.

Preston told the Dominion Post he wasn’t sure if Weithenauer had fallen from the same apartment as Smith.

The Morgantown Police Department is asking anyone who has information about the Sunday morning incident to call the detective unit at (304) 284-7454.

– Leann

UPDATE (4:56 p.m.)Brianna Smith is speaking out about the recent incident on her Facebook page, which is public.

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

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