Several hundred students at Bates College planned to don costumes tonight and parade between off-campus student houses, collecting treats of the alcoholic variety. The pre-Halloween event, Trick or Drink, is a tradition.
But it’s one that has been put to rest this year.
This month, administrators canceled the event, saying it strained relations with residents who live alongside off-campus student houses near the college in Lewiston, Maine.
Students have complained they had no input in the decision to ax the event, and that the cancellation was made so late in the semester that there was no time to plan an alternative event. For the most part, though, both sides agree that Trick or Drink, as the name suggests, did usually coincide with a heavy dose of alcohol.
The debate comes as other colleges -- such as Keene State College and West Virginia University -- deal with the aftermath of student drinking that got out of control, angering their local communities.
Every year, Bates College receives hundreds of complaints from city residents who live in neighborhoods interspersed with students. That's common for any college that shares borders with residential areas, Bates President Clayton Spencer said in an interview.
But complaints about rowdy behavior were especially prevalent during Trick or Drink, when hundreds of students would walk in large groups throughout the neighborhood.
During the event, seniors living off-campus decorate their houses based on certain themes. They sell tickets to underclassmen, who socialize with older students and sample a different drink at each stop.
Administrators have tried to scale back the event in the past few years, but issues persisted, Spencer said.
Local residents frequently complained about profanity, disrespect for neighbors’ property and the noise level on a week night, which was a particular issue for families with young children.
“It’s just inherently alcohol-based and disruptive to neighbors,” Spencer said of the event.
Canceling popular student parties is rarely an easy move for administrators, particularly when students feel it’s their right to carry on what’s become a tradition or have looked forward to an event for several years.
But for administrators, issues stemming from wild college parties -- from ill or injured students to unruly crowds and property destruction -- can cause substantial harm to a school’s reputation and relationship with its neighboring community.
What’s more, parties, as legendary as they may be, don’t mix well with the wide emphasis in the last decade on mitigating excessive drinking.
That’s of particular concern at Bates -- where the administration has been focusing on improving on campus culture related to drinking and encouraging healthier, more respectful behavior.
With that focus, it didn’t make sense to sponsor an event that’s deeply rooted in alcohol consumption, Spencer said.
Like every residential college, Bates struggles with typical issues related to underage drinking and alcohol abuse. But last spring, Spencer decided it was time to make changes at Bates by acknowledging the issue and aiming to support a more vibrant social scene that’s not based predominantly on alcohol.
The focus on drinking followed a particularly high-profile incident for Bates, in which a student was arrested and charged with assault after he knocked down the door to a house and injured an elderly man. The student has since withdrawn from Bates, Spencer said.
Students Criticize Administration's Actions
Students acknowledged that Bates needs to deal with excessive drinking, but some said this top-down decision was indicative of a larger trend in the way the administration interacts with students.
“We kind of felt left out of the decision, and the timing of it, right before our break, seemed manipulative,” said Sean Murphy, a senior at Bates. (The cancellation was announced via email by the vice president for student life and dean of students, Joshua McIntosh, on the day before students left for fall break.)
Murphy started an online petition signed by nearly 600 students, who pledged to withhold their senior gift until the administration changes its new strict enforcement of barring alcohol use on campus.
Hundreds of Bates students also joined a group on Facebook titled “Save TrickorDrink” and students filled an auditorium last week for a forum where the administration explained its reasoning.
Murphy said he doesn’t think his classmates actually expected the administration to reinstate the event, because it's true that there was a decent amount of heavy drinking and disruptive behavior.
But the lack of communication and the absence of any alternative event have upset students. Threatening to withhold senior gifts seemed like the only recourse students had, since they didn’t feel their voices were being heard, Murphy said.
While disappointment over the cancellation was widespread, not all Bates students understood the ferocity with which some of their peers protested the complaint.
In a piece in the student newspaper, one writer said he couldn’t remember any other incident that drew such a large number of students demanding change. He specifically pointed out the lack of support when groups have called for improvements in the inclusion of minority groups on campus.
Ashleen O’Brien, a senior, echoed his disappointment. She also was upset that the administration overstepped its bounds without consulting students. But there are more important campus issues she would like to see students rally around, she said, such as what she called the lack of support for victims of sexual assault or insensitivity to issues that affect transgender people.
Spencer said the pushback against the Trick or Drink decision has demonstrated to her how strongly students feel about having a role in shaping campus life. And she knows successful cultural changes can’t come without buy-in from students.
“The loudest feedback has objected to the decision, but there’s been important feedback from others suggesting that this is exactly the way a college should function on how to move forward together.”
In this case, even the most outraged students, she said, have recognized the need for change.
To that end, McIntosh, the dean of students, is forming a group of students, faculty and staff to spearhead changes. The group will focus on creating a culture that supports a wide range of social options aside from those focused on alcohol.
The college has already had some success in the past couple years with reforming events that were too closely tied with alcohol, Spencer said. One example she gave was changing Midnight Madness, a night during Senior Week where seniors traditionally stayed out all night partying before graduation.
Last year, the school provided seniors with a big breakfast at 2 a.m. and encouraged them to go home after that. “Most of our students want to be with their friends, have fun and drink moderately, and there are ways to support that,” Spencer said.
But this isn’t the first time the college has canceled a popular student event that centered around alcohol, either.
Throwback Night, where seniors used to return to their freshman dorms to drink, was replaced with a new Senior Week activity two years ago. Throwback Night also had garnered some negative attention for the college in 2010, when 13 students were arrested during the event.
Patrick Tolosky, a senior who spoke at the forum last week, said that he understands students may feel like their traditions are under attack. But even though they're angry with how the administration handled this issue, he hopes students don’t back down from the involvement they’re demanding.
After all, he said, the majority of students want to be able to enjoy the Bates experience without hurting themselves or the surrounding community, and that’s what the administration wants, too.
But that won't be easy or quick, Tolosky said. It will take prolonged leadership, not just from the administration, but from students.
"The student body shouldn’t be complacent with the fact that, ‘Oh it’s college and that stuff will happen,’ " Tolosky said of binge drinking and other college party activities.
"That's not something that policy can really get at," he said. "That's up to us."
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