Weekend Riot At WSU May Be Part Of Trend

Students and administrators alike have described the weekend fracas at Washington State University as a fluke, a strange combination of exam stress, a beautiful day and enough alcohol to put a horse in a coma.

Yet the timing and the conditions preceding the riot suggest that what happened in Pullman is part of a growing national trend of misbehavior by drunk students, especially at schools that have cracked down on alcohol abuse.

The riot at WSU was one of four brawls on college campuses over the weekend:

-- At Pullman, 24 police officers were injured, six seriously, in an early Sunday riot in which police car windows were smashed and numerous fires set along "Greek Row," where a number of fraternities and sororities are located. Crowd estimates ranged from 500 to 2,000.

-- At Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, seven people were arrested after 500 celebrating students threw bottles, beer cans and rocks at police.

-- In Lawrence, Kan., four University of Kansas students were arrested, one for smashing a police car windshield, after a drunken brawl in a city street.

-- At Michigan State University, about 3,000 students, some throwing bottles and rocks and setting fires, clashed with police during a protest over new rules on the use of alcohol before school football games.

The WSU violence was similar to that in Michigan in that both, in part, were about curbs on drinking. This is the first year of a WSU policy banning alcohol in public rooms in student housing - including fraternities and sororities.

The other two incidents might not have been about alcohol, but certainly involved it.

William Mercier, director of the WSU Department of Public Safety, said there was a connection between the Michigan and Pullman riots.

"I think what happened over the weekend is somewhat of a copycat of what happened in Michigan State," Mercier said.

Still, he said the riot was not an organized protest, but the extreme behavior of a drunken crowd. "After the fact, people tried to put a label on it," Mercier said.

Gus Kravas, WSU vice provost for student affairs, said it was too early to guess about national trends. But he suggested there is a growing problem with alcohol abuse by students that many schools are starting to recognize. He said student brawls may be more violent, not as a reaction to efforts to curb drinking, but because young students are drinking without knowing how to control themselves.

"Students are getting out and looking at a situation like that (a riot), and not knowing how to respond," Kravas said.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly periodical that reports on college and university news, is publishing a report this week that alcohol arrests on campuses nationwide in 1996 increased by 10 percent and drug arrests by 5 percent, the fifth year in a row for increases.

The Chronicle attributes much of the increase to tougher state laws and school policies. There is no evidence that drinking has actually increased, according to the report, and there is some evidence it has remained stable in recent years.

Figures show that in Washington state, arrests for liquor-law violations have increased more dramatically than the nation as a whole. Between 1995 and 1996, according to the Chronicle report, alcohol arrests more than tripled at the University of Washington, from 33 to 100.

Western Washington University had an increase of 62 percent (from 45 to 73 arrests), WSU a 37 percent increase (from 110 to 152), while Central Washington had the lowest increase, just under 14 percent (from 66 to 75). Eastern Washington, with only 4 arrests in 1995, had the largest percentage increase, 225 percent to 13 arrests in 1996.

By comparison, Michigan State University led the nation in the Chronicle survey, with 574 alcohol arrests - nearly doubling its 1995 figure. The arrests in 1996 were about 14.1 per thousand students at the school, compared to about 7.7 arrests per thousand at WSU and 2.9 per thousand at the UW.

Though the numbers are sobering, Scott Jaschik, an editor at the Chronicle, said controlling drinking is a tough issue: Colleges feel pressure from parents and politicians to limit illegal alcohol consumption. But to stop a freshman from drinking also is a naive notion. What's more, students have long said that if drinking is curbed on campus, they'll simply go off campus - and to do that, they'll probably drive.

But some students have joined the chorus of concerned parents in asking colleges and universities to get tougher on drinking.

Steve Wymer, the incoming vice president of the Associated Students at WSU, has been an advocate of tougher rules and of voluntary compliance, particularly in fraternities. Wymer suggested WSU is divided right now between older students who attend the school to party, and younger, more academically serious students. He said the riot was probably a reaction by older students who find themselves more and more in the minority.

Andy Boyd, president of the Interfraternal Council at WSU, said student violence may be the price to pay for attempting to change the drinking culture. But even if that's the case, it's a price worth paying.

The university also has its own questions about the responsibilities of the Greek system. Kravas said WSU is identifying students involved in the riot. Early results of an investigation suggest that several fraternity houses were involved.

WSU President Sam Smith said those responsible will be expelled, and guilty fraternities will be suspended.

Still, students like Sean Hintz, who was at the party at WSU that eventually led to the riot, said the school shares the responsibility and that the disturbance was probably the result of the school's restrictions on alcohol.

By making it more difficult for younger students to drink, the university has guaranteed that large crowds will gather at any party that has alcohol, he said.

"If people could drink, drinking would be in small groups," he argued.

However, Gretchen Bataille, WSU provost, said that line of logic would suggest WSU should not enforce any laws, because doing so eventually could lead to violence. And that's not an option.

"We will respond the same way that Michigan is responding. We will enforce the law," Bataille said.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Roberto Sanchez's phone message number is 206-464-8522. His e-mail address is: rsan-new@seatimes.com

Matthew Ebnet's phone message number is 206-515-5698. His e-mail address is: mebn-new@seatimes.com