University, Police Want Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day To End
By Sean Powers
Expect a sea of green this weekend as tens of thousands of students from the University of Illinois and elsewhere flock to Champaign-Urbana for Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day.
Over the last several years, the event has been marred by underage drinking, destruction of property, and the distribution of drugs. There have also been at least two deaths tied to unofficial in recent years.
U of I Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Renée Romano knows where she stands when it comes to Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day.
“I would definitely like to see it go away,” Romano said.
“I don’t see it going away in the near future,” said Roy Acree, the captain with the University of Illinois’ police department.
Last year, university officials and police departments gave out information about how to stay safe during the festivities. Still, there were hundreds of arrests, mostly for underage drinking. Acree said he has looked at what other schools are doing.
“A couple of us have gone up to the (University of Wisconsin–Madison) to see how they handle their Halloween festivities,” Acree explained.
Freakfest is what it is called. Concertgoers wear costumes, and can buy alcohol within a gated area, but they can’t bring alcohol inside the event. That what it is now, but a few years ago University spokesman John Lucas said it was a massive Halloween block party that some years attracted 60,000-to-70,000 people, many of whom came from out of town.
"It got to be something of a public safety issue because you’d have to have police who were dressed in their full gear coming out using pepper spray to sort of disperse the crowd,” Lucas said. “One year there was a fire on the street. There have been several injuries.”
Lucas said the University restricted housing, so that only students could stay in the dorms. With input from the UW-Madison, the city gated off about a mile of the street where a lot of the party action took place and “Freakfest” was born.
“From the University’s perspective, it’s been a really positive change,” Lucas said. “You know, it’s a party that I think the students can go to and have fun, but it doesn’t have that sort of uncertainty of how it’s going to end and what could happen and people are likely to get hurt.”
Over at the U of I, University Police Captain Roy Acree said he does not see that happening with Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day.
“We’re trying to control it,”Acree said. “The last thing we want to do is block the streets for this event because if we block the streets then what we are doing is just empowering the event more.”
Separate from Freakfest, UW-Madison started holding a music and arts festival last year to attract students away from another block party that happens every spring. At the U of I, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Renée Romano said offering alternative events hasn’t worked well with Unofficial. And she says she’s not surprised.
“But you got to try,” Romano said. “I mean you got to try, and we look at other universities and we talk about the things that they’re trying, and all of these things are really particular to an institution, the community, and the situation.”
Down in Carbondale in the late ‘90, Southern Illinois University canceled classes during Halloween week, and encouraged students to go home. After a riot broke out on Halloween about 15 years ago, the city banned the sale of alcohol at three bars near the SIU campus. Police had to intervene using tear gas. SIU Dean of Students Katie Sermersheim said the university faced a choice.
“Is that when you strategically have fall break, and shut down the residence halls so that everybody leaves town?” Sermersheim said. “Well, that didn’t seem to be the best piece of the formula. So, the university’s work in that area was to keep the university open, keep people engaged in the university community.”
This past year, the city lifted the nearly 15-year ban on alcohol sales for a one-year trial period. The city of Champaign hasn’t banned the sale of alcohol during Unofficial, but it has restricted bar entry to those 21 and over, and limited keg and alcohol sales.
Meanwhile, at Iowa State University, a long-time campus tradition known as VEISHEA was put on hiatus in 2005 after riots broke out the year before. The university formed a task force to look at the source of the riots, and made several recommendations, like offering alternative events and loosening alcohol restrictions so students aren’t compelled to go to house parties. The school started offering more activities throughout the spring, and better educating students about the risks. Thomas Hill with student affairs at Iowa State said after a year, VEISHEA came back.
“I don’t want you to think that I’m saying we stopped the Unofficial VEISHEA completely,” Hill said. “No, we did not, and that’s a very difficult thing to do because we still have a free society. People have rights, and you can’t tell someone they can’t have a party just because you’re having a celebration.”
“The goal is to let people know exactly and be very clear – students have done a great job of this, the organizers – letting people know what VEISHEA is all about and what the expectations are,” he added.
While U of I officials want to see Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day go away, something all of these schools agree on is that community support plays a critical role. It might just be working in Champaign. Police say the number of city ordinance violations during last year’s Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day dropped by more than 30 percent from the year before.