Crowded off-campus party degenerates into 'war zone'

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

HARRISONBURG, VA. -- The bottle caps, broken glass and empty plastic cups littering a neighborhood near James Madison University's campus suggested that the events of Saturday afternoon were nothing more than a kegger gone bad. But those who witnessed the party-turned-riot recalled chaos so out of character for this Shenandoah Valley town that by Monday afternoon, it still had the power to amaze.

"When you are setting off tear gas and people still aren't leaving, you know it's bad," recalled Lt. Kurt Boshart of the Harrisonburg Police Department. "It was really bad."

Each semester, James Madison students organize a huge block party, in one of the popular neighborhoods near campus, that typically attracts about 2,000 people. But when more than 8,000 people showed up to "Springfest" at a row of townhouses at the Forest Hill Manor development, the event quickly escalated, Boshart and witnesses said. Rocks, beer bottles and cans flew, hitting and injuring dozens of people and shattering car and house windows, according to police, witnesses and video of events. Dumpsters were set ablaze.

The response eventually involved about 200 police officers from several different agencies, many outfitted in riot gear and fighting back with canisters of tear gas, rounds of pepper spray and foam projectiles. A Medevac helicopter arrived to take a casualty to a trauma center, and about three dozen others went to the local hospital.

By the time it was over, Harrisonburg police said they had arrested at least 17 people and were studying uploaded YouTube videos for more suspects. Other law enforcement agencies made arrests, but the total numbers are still being tallied.

Linwood H. Rose, president of the 18,500-student university, sternly e-mailed the entire campus Sunday. "Your collective behavior was an embarrassment to your university and a discredit to our reputation," he wrote. "No one is opposed to some fun on a beautiful spring weekend, but public drunkenness, destruction of property, and threats to personal safety are unacceptable outcomes."

The student newspaper, the Breeze, was more terse with its large headline in Monday's paper: "War Zone."

On some college campuses, spring semester's warmer weather leads to a proliferation of unofficial, student-run parties that quickly can attract thousands -- sometimes including people with no ties to campus -- especially when news spreads over Facebook or via text message. The parties occasionally are magnets for crime and injury and can increase friction between students, campus authorities, town officials and residents of neighborhoods populated by students.

"Crowd-control issues tend to feed off each other," said Marlon Lynch, associate vice president for safety and security at the University of Chicago and president of the industry group International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. "Some behavior becomes contagious, and before anyone realizes what's going on, it grows to the point where it's hard to de-escalate."

James Madison student Cara Mulqueen, 21, said she looked out her rowhouse window about 2 p.m. Saturday and was surprised that there weren't more people outside. Within 45 minutes, the junior speech therapy major said, all she could see was crowds of people.

"It was just swamped. Everywhere you looked, there were people standing shoulder-to-shoulder," Mulqueen said.

Police said JMU students were not the only ones at the party. Cars full of students from area high schools arrived, as did college students from Virginia Tech, Washington and Lee, and William and Mary.

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