By Courtney Ridenhour
In the beginning of the school year, it’s not unusual to see more arrests of Washington and Lee University students for alcohol-related violations. But this year, the numbers are higher than usual.
Lexington police and Rockbridge County sheriff’s deputies arrested 43 partying students over the first 19 days since students returned to campus. The comparable number for last September is not available, but only 65 students were charged for similar violations during the entire calendar year.
For many, the spike in arrests this month is alarming. There is talk of officers targeting students. But Lexington Police Chief Al Thomas said enforcement policies have remained consistent from year to year. It’s student behavior that has worsened, he said.
“This was not a crackdown on students,” Thomas said. “This is, I think, some young people using very poor judgment early on.”
Following a drunk-driving accident that left two students seriously injured and the driver under arrest last December, there was a push to move partying closer to campus. But with the perceived high risk of arrest, students are hesitant to remain in Lexington or in nearby residential areas.
In years past, students were more discreet about partying, Thomas said. This year, parties spill into the streets and underage drinkers openly brandish beer cans and liquor bottles, he said.
But the most worrisome difference officers said they noticed is a coarsening of attitude among students.
Thomas said there have been incidents of jeering and taunting officers.
“[There] is this feeling now of ‘this is what we’re going to do and we’re not going to bend,’ ” said Police Capt. A.M. “Bucky” Miller. “You would have thought that the upperclassmen knew the game.”
“We’re seeing a lot of disrespect among students,” agreed Mike Young, the university’s director of public safety. “I don’t know how to explain it. And I can tell you I’ve been here for 20 years and this is probably the worst I’ve seen it.”
Young said he does not believe that police are targeting students. “You’ve got 90 party nights times 2,200 students. That gives you the amount of opportunities [for arrests],” he said. “There’s just no way statistically that it shows up that these people are out to get our kids.”
Yet, the perception among students is that the dramatic increase in arrests is the result of a concentrated effort by law enforcement. Megan Bock, a junior at Washington and Lee, has served as a driver for Traveller, a student-run safe ride program, since her freshmen year.
Bock said she has noticed that the number of calls Traveller receives spikes around 11 p.m., when parties must quiet down under the city’s 1984 noise ordinance. It is also the time that students report that police show up at parties.
Bock remembers such police intervention only once or twice last year. “This year, there’ve been four or five parties already that we suddenly get these influx of calls because kids are in the house trying not to walk outside,” Bock said.
“We don’t want them driving,” Bock said. “So we’re trying to get as many cars there as possible to get them home. But in . . . years past, we haven’t had this many situations, for sure.”
After the first week in September, Thomas sat down with school administrators to discuss ways to prevent alcohol-related arrests. He said the police department is looking for more ways to educate students when they first come to campus.
“I don’t think we’ve created opportunities for us to interact,” he said. “You’re college students. Still have a good time. I get that, too, but how are we going to do that safely? That’s how we look at it.”