COLLEGE PARK – A month-and-a-half after University of Maryland students and others set about 60 fires that caused thousands of dollars of damage to the City of College Park, the city and the university seem to have chalked up the episode as a learning experience.
“This has not negatively affected the city’s relationship with the university,” said City Manager Richard Conti. “We were able to communicate with the university right away, and talk with President [Clayton D.] Mote about who from the campus was involved…. It was not the entire student body.”
Conciliatory comments from city officials contrast starkly with the explosion of tempers and frustrated statements issued immediately after the March 31 fires, which cost an estimated $30,000 in damages to city property, Conti said, and about another $300,000 to Comcast cable lines.
College Park Mayor Michael Jacobs was quoted in the Diamondback saying he was looking for a way to express himself “without using four-letter words” and that “the community has had enough.” Jacobs also sent a letter to Gov. Parris Glendening on April 3, asking him to investigate the matter.
“No agency appears willing to be accountable just as the University has historically not accepted its responsibility for controlling conditions which are a direct result of its programs,” Jacobs wrote.
Mote sent a letter of apology to the mayor the next day, stressing that the incidents were the isolated actions of a small number of students and that the university was working with police to arrest those responsible.
Former College Park Mayor Dervey Lomax was not as sanguine as Conti in a recent interview. Lomax said that the rampage was likely to take a toll on the university’s improving relationship with the city.
“This was like throwing gas on a fire that had already smoldered out,” Lomax said.
Over the years, officials on both sides have struggled to balance the positive impacts the university has on the city’s development with the negatives associated with the party habits of college students.
Last year, University of Maryland’s sixth annual outdoor concert, Art Attack, prompted 50 to 60 complaints by city residents who said that the concert was too loud and that the crowd of roughly 20,000 spectators was out of control. A campus task force appointed to study concert management in lieu of potential fines to the campus proposed that all large outdoor concerts be moved to Byrd Stadium, and that ticketing be used to restrict access.
This year, Art Attack was held in Byrd Stadium, and Jacobs said he received no complaints from residents about noise from the May 4 concert, which drew several thousand attendees. “Art Attack was a significant improvement over last year,” the mayor said.
With respect to the fires, the mayor and other city officials have shifted their emphasis from the university’s culpability to the fact that the fires were set by a small number of people.
“A minority of folks who were motivated by things that surprise me at times … created a big amount of damage that brings discredit to the university and the city,” said Jacobs. “These actions characterize everyone on campus as irresponsible, but that’s not the case.”
Councilman Stephen Brayman, who said he could see flames shooting up in College Park from his home during the last five minutes of the game, expressed similar sentiments. He said that the University of Maryland is a commuter school, and most of the students weren’t present in College Park when the riots took place.
In a mass e-mail distributed campus-wide five days after the demonstrations, Vice President for Student Affairs Linda Clement said that “a small number of individuals have stained us all, and are not representative of our campus community.” She called the acts of violence and fires “intolerable” and said that they “embarrass” the university.
Since the incident, four University of Maryland students have been arrested and face trial for misdemeanor charges. Initially, the students also faced felony charges for first-degree malicious burning, but that charge was dropped because it could not be substantiated, said a spokeswoman for the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Theta Chi fraternity national headquarters also took action, suspending the campus chapter for 30 days after two members were quoted in The Washington Post saying that they had participated or supported the actions of others who rioted.
Student reactions vary, from those who feel that the responsible students should be made an example of to those who think that a small number of people are being treated as scapegoats.
“I think the whole thing was ridiculous,” said Stephen McClurkin, 22, a government and politics major who was working at Kinko’s Copies in College Park when the rampage took place.
“I feel like these are all spoiled little rich kids who don’t understand the value of the things they were destroying,” McClurkin said, adding that the responsible parties were going to make property owners less likely to rent to students and more likely to raise rent.
Others said that a small group of students, especially members of fraternities, are being scapegoated.
“It’s not really fair that the frats are getting blamed for it,” said Casey Maskell, 20, a sophomore in Phi Sigma Kappa. “Everybody was running down to [Fraternity] Row….[But] the majority of people weren’t frat guys.”
Maskell concedes that the city and its residents have a right to be upset.
“It was pretty stupid, so I guess everybody has a right to be mad,” he said. “Just not at us.”
Some city residents want to see the university taking greater responsibility for student actions. “The university is no greater than the efforts it brings off-campus,” said Lomax, who lives on Knox Road. “It has to take responsibility for the actions of students off-campus.”
Meanwhile, some city businesses seemed unfazed.
“We feel like we were separated from all that,” said Eden Beck, manager of the Cornerstone Grill and Loft. “A lot of the people in here were alumni watching the game, who cleared out right after it was over.”
Beck said she wasn’t surprised by what happened, because she “know[s] what the Maryland rivalry with Duke is like.”
City and university officials are underscoring the importance of maintaining a partnership and of preventing a similar situation from occurring.
Conti said, “It takes proper leadership, and the university has indicated it’s willing to be part of that.” Conti alluded to “Greek Week” as an example of how coordinated efforts between city officials and city police can be successful. He suggested that the Local Development Corp., an economic partnership between the city and the university, is a powerful example of the continually improving relationship between the university and the city.
“We have got to put this incident behind us,” said Jacobs. “We need to take the initiative to continue the improving relationship that existed between the city and the university over the past several years.”
— Maryland Newsline reporter Tynisa E. Trapps contributed to this report.