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UMD takes community approach to move-in day behavior

After a particularly bad experience in 2017, officials decided to take another look at how they deal with the issue of large parties, underage drinking and offensive signs — and they say their efforts are paying off.

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East Area Community Officer Ethan Roe knocks on the door of a rental property near UMD on Tuesday. UMD move in day is on Thursday, so the Duluth Police Department is proactively asking rental properties along Woodland Avenue and 21st Avenue East to play by the rules. Ellen Schmidt/eschmidt@duluthnews.com
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On move-in day at the University of Minnesota Duluth, it takes a village to get everyone settled.

Parents are dropping off their sons and daughters at school, some for the first time. Volunteers are helping everyone find their way on campus. Police are directing traffic.

There’s a flurry of activity on campus as students find their dorms, meet their roommates, unpack their suitcases.

Off campus, there’s a steady stream of cars from the base of 21st Avenue East up the hill to Woodland and College avenues. Some students are still moving into rental properties. Others are relaxing on porches or in yards.

But then there are the parties. And the signs.

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In what has long been an annual tradition, students along the move-in route — plenty of them with red Solo cup in hand — have held signs with statements ranging from cheeky to downright intimidating.

“Honk if she’s above a 7.”

“Moms, we will turn your boys into men.”

“21 to drink, 18(ish) to sleep over.”

“Freelance gynecology.”

It’s a display that few would say reflects with the welcoming environment that UMD strives to roll out as students — especially incoming freshmen — arrive on campus for the year.

‘High bar’ for discipline

No matter how distasteful, holding a sign in front of your house isn’t illegal.

In fact, it's your First Amendment right, and the University of Minnesota’s systemwide student conduct code has strong language to protect that right.

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Moreover, as a public university, UMD is limited in scope in how it can respond to issues off campus, said Lisa Erwin, the school’s vice chancellor for student life.

Some cities, such as Athens, Ohio, and Whitewater, Wis., have enacted sign ordinances to curb their own campus traditions on move-in day, Erwin said. Duluth has not.

“So, this has to be more for us an educational effort than necessarily a holding accountable of student conduct,” she said.

According to rules laid out by the system’s Board of Regents, the university may only address student conduct off campus when two conditions are met:

One, Erwin said, is that the conduct “adversely affects a substantial university interest — and we might argue that, in this case, that's happening now.”

The other, however, is that it either must “constitute a criminal offense or be a health or safety hazard,” she said. “We don't meet that high bar with the signs.”

By contrast, underage drinking does meet that bar. It’s illegal, and both minors and the adults who host them can be held accountable. Open containers on public property also are illegal.

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Officer Ethan Roe crosses a house off his list at the end of 21st Avenue East on Tuesday. Roe got out of the office to hand out flyers to rental properties in the area about lawful behavior during UMD Welcome Week. Ellen Schmidt/eschmidt@duluthnews.com

A new approach

After a particularly bad move-in day in 2017 in terms of student behavior, officials decided to take another look at how they deal with the issue.

“Two years ago, there were large groups of students that would just walk from one party to the other, so soon as you’d break the party up, they’d walk (to the next one),” said Duluth police Lt. Chad Nagorski, who oversees the department’s efforts on move-in day.

“We were getting reports that parents don't want to go outside with their young kids, because of the students walking through the yards,” he said. “Some were urinating in people's yards, littering their open containers, throwing them in people's yards.”

When a student is cited in situations like these, Duluth police send a copy of the citation to UMD police, which then shares it with UMD administration. A meeting is scheduled with the student about his or her conduct, which could result in possible sanctions.

It was those conduct meetings that helped guide officials in how to respond going forward, Erwin said.

“Some of the students who were coming in for the alcohol violations were also holding up signs, and our conduct folks talked with them about that, and they said, ‘We don't really understand the expectations.’” Erwin said.

So, Erwin met with Nagorski and UMD Police Chief Sean Huls to come up with a plan to go door-to-door before move-in day to tell students what’s expected of them.

And so, 2018 was a turning point, Erwin said — “markedly improved over 2017.”

While the number of citations actually was fairly steady, the number of parties dropped by two-thirds, said Ethan Roe, the Duluth Police Department’s East Area Community Officer.

A positive environment

Neal Bhakta, a junior at UMD and the school’s Student Association president, believes that if students would call upon their own memories of move-in day, much of the bad behavior would stop.

“Think about the families. Think about the parents, because once they drop their student or students off, they're gone. And that's the only message they saw, right? They don't see everything that happens after,” Bhakta said. “So, let's not create a negative environment right off, the first day.”

So, Bhakta and other student leaders on campus joined with university administrators to brainstorm ways to create a positive environment on move-in day.

Various student groups have sponsored signs that say “Welcome 2 UMD.” Erwin and her husband will help hand-deliver the signs to residences in the neighborhood on Thursday, adding to dozens that already dot the landscape around campus.

“So this is really diverse group of students who are are really trying to present a positive counterpoint to what might be in other parts of the neighborhood,” Erwin said.

For the second year, the university also is sponsoring a "Best Bulldog Yard Contest.” Fifteen prizes will be awarded, with winners receiving gift certificates of between $50 and $250 to the Super One Foods store on Arrowhead Road.

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Officer Ethan Roe speaks with UMD student Alex Wurst at the front door of his rental house on Tuesday. Roe, the East Area Community Officer, knocked on doors in the area to let students know about law enforcement during UMD Welcome Week. Ellen Schmidt/eschmidt@duluthnews.com

Prevention through outreach

On Tuesday, Roe was busy knocking on doors.

Roe canvassed rental properties near UMD, armed with flyers that remind students of the laws surrounding parties, alcohol possession, open consumption and other potential issues.

Few answered at 3 in the afternoon, but Roe left a sheet at each door.

While the flyer stresses a zero-tolerance policy, the spirit of policing on move-in day isn’t about strict punishment, Roe said.

“It doesn’t mean we give up our discretion,” he said. “If we get here and it’s nothing like the 911 call says, we’re not going to write you a ticket. We’re not the ‘fun police.’”

However, there will be extra police on hand. The university is paying for four Duluth officers on Thursday, who will be on bike patrol.

‘It takes a village’

In the end, Erwin said, the responsibilities around move-in day are like a three-legged stool where multiple entities each have a leg.

“There are folks who would say it’s the university’s responsibility; there are folks who would say it’s the city's responsibility, and there folks who would say it's the students’ responsibility — and they're all right,” she said.

“Yeah, it takes a village.”

Adelie (Her name rhymes with "Natalie") is a former News Tribune reporter who continues to write the Northlandia column on a freelance basis. She's also an artist, photographer and fine-art model. She's a girl of the North with a love for Scandinavia, the Northern Lights, quirky films and anything mid-century.
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