MSU Considers Game-Day and Party Stress on East Lansing

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017, 8:24 am
Alice Dreger

Above: A party in a residential East Lansing neighborhood on the day of the MSU-UoM game last year.

As MSU gears up for another football season, some East Lansing officials and residents find themselves bracing for the local problems that come from big game days. During MSU home football weekends, the number of people—and the number of people drinking heavily—surges in East Lansing. While some see this as normal behavior for a Big 10 college town, others have serious concerns about disruptive noise, destructive and self-destructive behaviors, and increased problems with crimes like theft and sexual assault.

Alcohol abuse is a particular source of concern for City and MSU leaders, in part because of how it strains local Police and Fire Departments’ abilities to respond to all emergencies. City Manager George Lahanas explained last year, “Not only are these weekends dangerous for those who consume too much alcohol, they can result in response time delays to serious crimes and major medical emergencies elsewhere in the community.”

Emergency officials have told ELi that it is only a matter of time before the taxing on local emergency services leads to someone being seriously hurt because emergency personnel can’t respond as fast as they need. ELPD provided ELi data last year after the MSU-University of Michigan game weekend, showing that of 159 Emergency Medical Services calls that weekend, 88 of those “were in response to intoxicated/incapacitated patients.”

To find out for ELi readers how MSU’s administration is thinking about management of these problems, I sat down last week with three MSU administrators whose charges include town-gown relations: Bill Beekman, Vice President and Secretary of MSU’s Board of Trustees; Janet Lillie, Assistant Vice President for Community Relations in East Lansing and Lansing; and Suchitra (Sue) Webster, MSU Community Liaison.

Here’s what we talked about.

Setting up MASH-style field hospitals to deal with alcohol overwhelming the system:

Just after the major strain on emergency services caused by the MSU-University of Michigan football game last year, ELPD’s then-Chief Jeff Murphy told us, “If you were in East Lansing between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., you would have heard almost constant sirens. For the most part, these sirens were not the sound of public service officials responding to serious accidents, robberies or other crimes, they were the sound of our fire department responding to help people who had become incapacitated from consuming too much alcohol.”

The result was overwhelming not only of transport services but of local emergency rooms. Beekman told me, “So much of it unfortunately falls on [Sparrow Hospital]. We’ve had times over the years where they literally had to close emergency rooms, divert ambulances, and unfortunately when you’re hauling people that mostly have had too much to drink, you’re at risk for not being able to deal with other crises in the community.”

Below: A keg party in a residential East Lansing neighborhood.

To try to deal with these problems, Beekman says MSU is considering doing what the University of Michigan has been doing—setting up temporary MASH-style medical venues on campus to triage patients, to try to take some of the strain off the emergency rooms at our hospitals and to reduce the number of ambulance runs. (MASH stands for “Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.”)

Beekman says MSU is still in the process of “exploring options” on this, so this approach likely won’t be in use this academic year. He says MSU’s Chief of Police Jim Dunlap is “very interested” in this as a possible approach.

The idea is that MSU would partner with Sparrow Hospital and/or McLaren Hospital in this endeavor. Beekman says he could see this as “a way we could collaborate with our partners and have a win-win—save health care costs and take better care of people.”

But, he says, he would rather convince people to be more responsible “on the front-end”—not to end up in situations where they need emergency services for self-harming behaviors. Beekman, Lillie, and Webster noted that MSU has been working on trying to change attitudes about drinking, including among non-students (alumni and visitors) who come to town to attend MSU sporting events.

Below: MSU Spartan Stadium, photo courtesy MSU.

The “party school” and “party town” perception and related noise issues:

Beekman tells ELi, “It is certainly not our desire to be or to be perceived as a party school or a party town. I think that part of anybody’s college experience is socializing, but within reasonable limits and reasonable parameters. I think we’re certainly supportive of trying to help students understand what reasonable is.” He said with regard to various lists that have included MSU as a party school, “We happily have drifted off many of those lists.”

Webster noted in our interview that sometimes during MSU football games, MSU puts up messages on the large video screens to raise awareness about alcohol abuse and sexual assault. She said, “The university is very supportive of trying to figure out how to help the students that come to campus grow not only intellectually but emotionally.”

But, Beekman suggests, sometimes what is “required” of MSU sports will mean extra strains on East Lansing, particularly in terms of disruptive noise. Speaking about football, he says, “we have advocated for trying to keep a handle on night games, which at least would then keep the noise during the day.” However, “The bad news there is that the most recent TV contract has taken a lot of that control out of our hands as an individual university.” He adds, “We’re going to have to take night games as they come.”

I asked Beekman about the issue of noise pouring from MSU stadiums into East Lansing, with amplified music and excited announcers adding to the feeling of a party atmosphere. Over the last decade, MSU officials have opted to increase the lights and sound at Spartan Stadium so that there is now significant light and sound coming into the downtown and nearby neighborhoods. The photo below shows Spartan Stadium’s boards lit up on a non-event night, as seen from a downtown East Lansing parking garage. (The lights of the stadium and stadium displays are often on at night, even when there is no event.)

Spartan Stadium’s sound system is far stronger than a decade or two ago, and the sound systems from the soccer and baseball/softball complexes also now carry well into East Lansing neighborhoods. While ELPD officers have said the pop music and entertainment announcements coming from campus adds to the idea that East Lansing is a party town, Beekman told me he was unaware of this issue.

Beekman says MSU is supportive of ELPD enforcing the City’s noise ordinance, including at fraternities and sororities. The law prohibits amplified music “plainly audible beyond the property line” and is aimed at allowing police to stop loud parties, particularly those involving amplified music outside.

The noise law, however, does not apply to MSU. Lillie suggested MSU might consider ways to project sound differently so that less of it comes off campus.

Fraternity and sorority “annexes”:

A great deal of pressure has been put on fraternities and sororities to reduce alcohol abuse, to the point where some houses are declared “dry.” But to get around this, some fraternities and sororities rent local houses as “annexes” where they hold parties where behavior won’t be directly associated with their main addresses.

Beekman acknowledged this situation and called it “troubling,” mentioning the highly-publicized hazing-drinking death of Tim Piazza at the Penn State chapter of Beta Theta Pi. Beekman noted that at MSU, fraternities and sororities are located off-campus—“they’ve got private houses on private land in East Lansing, so there is very little control that we have over them other than sort of influence and encouragement and cajoling and education insofar as they are our students.”

He said that, when the media covers the story of Piazza, it is not the fraternity or the town that is named, but the university. So, he said, “there is a massive piece [of perceived responsibility] that falls on the institution that is across the street, and yet for better or worse, we have precious little control as to how these places work.” According to Beekman, “at the end of the day, our control is fairly limited.”

Below: MSU Chapter of Alpha Gamma Rho on Evergreen Avenue in East Lansing, where MSU senior Brian McMillen, aged 22, died in 2009 of alcohol poisoning.

MSU has no off-campus code-of-conduct policy:

Members of the Associated Students of Michigan State University (ASMSU, the government for MSU undergraduates) have been looking at proposing an off-campus code-of-conduct policy. They note that MSU is the only Big 10 institution without one.

Lorenzo Santavicca, President of ASMSU, tells ELi that the group “anticipate[s] holding a full discussion” on the issue this year.” He says a major question in the matter is, “What is the role of the university in these measures?”

According to Santavicca, “Our organization some time ago led an effort that brought the issue all the way up to the Board of Trustees but it was voted down ultimately by the board.” He added that ASMSU plans to address the issue again in the new year, and that it may be  the right time to ask the University to "step up and reevaluate whether or not the responsibilities (and consequences) of being a Spartan" end where campus meets the City of East Lansing.

Asked if MSU’s administration would support an off-campus code-of-conduct policy, Webster said any proposed policy of this type “has to go through a lot of academic communities and requires support of students, faculty, and administrators.” Beekman praised ASMSU for its leadership in conduct issues.


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