As final exams wrap up the fall quarter this week at the University of Denver, neighbors are breathing a collective sigh of relief. The year-round residents are ready for a break from the town-versus-gown clash with rowdy college students, a common occurrence at campuses across the country.
"I think that the students who live off-campus right now are probably one of the worst groups of neighbors that we've seen in quite some time," says University Park Community Council president Andi Malard, who has lived just east of DU for ten years and has called the police four times already this year. "It's like five-year-olds turned loose in a toy store: They run down the street screaming their heads off. It's really sad, but they just don't pay attention to the law."
But for the first time, the university is taking a stand, in part to appease neighbors. This fall, DU teamed up with the Denver Police Department to crack down on off-campus partying, imposing sanctions for violating the Student Code of Conduct at off-campus events -- whether for drinking at a nearby bar or for throwing a backyard kegger.
"It's the first time that we're taking official action," says Dan Kast, DU's director of citizenship and community standards. "It isn't so much that we suddenly want to get students in trouble; it's more that we've made the decision that we shouldn't turn a blind eye to things that happen two blocks away or in downtown Denver."
In mid-September, DU sent a letter to neighbors and its 9,000 students outlining the new policy and asking them to "please keep the music down, especially after 10 p.m." Then Denver police held three undercover operations -- a program that District Three's Sergeant Johnny Martinez likes to call the "DU Party Disturbance Patrol" -- to bust underage drinking at popular DU bars, liquor stores and house parties. They issued about forty citations over three nights, compared with the 100 issued during the entire 2002-2003 school year.
"I don't want to give you the impression that DU students are out of control," Martinez says. "It's not worse than in past years; we're just taking a different approach. We felt that if we asserted more control of the situation at the beginning of the year -- be proactive instead of reactive -- that it will send a message to the students."
Under the new policy, students' first off-campus violations are met with a warning letter from DU's lawyers; the letter is copied to their landlords if the incident involves private property. With the second offense, students can be placed on probation; the third could result in suspension or even expulsion. So far this year, eleven DU students have been suspended -- all for on-campus infractions -- but none have been expelled, although at least six students at two separate private residences have been evicted by landlords.
That process can take as little as thirteen days to complete and is dependent upon how each individual lease is written, according to Craig Joyce, a Denver lawyer who specializes in tenant-landlord disputes. For example, many landlords include language that requires tenants to abide by all local laws -- and noise violations, brought to landlords' attention by DU, could constitute grounds for eviction.
"I think most of our students are very well-behaved," says Neil Krauss, DU's assistant vice chancellor for business affairs and neighborhood liaison, who spearheaded the new campaign. "We know when the worst times of the year are; they're predictable. It's a fact of life that at the beginning and end of every quarter, students are going to party, let loose. Sadly, we have to set examples."
In DU law professor Tom Russell's experience, however, those examples don't always work. He lived on Boulder's infamous Hill when the University of Colorado implemented a similar alcohol policy after a slew of student riots three years ago, but Russell found that the program didn't make much of a difference. "Obviously, the size of the university does matter, but my impression is that our students are very different. CU is clearly a party school, and a large number of students go to the school solely for that reason," he says. "The city and citizens of Boulder tolerate disorder and lawlessness in a way that the people of Denver do not.
"Part of the University of Denver's mission is to be a private university in the public interest," he adds. "I regard it as a responsible act by this university to get involved in students' off-campus lives."
Senior Mitch Goldman learned about the new policy the hard way. In early September, the police broke up the second party that Goldman and his roommates had held at their off-campus house in one week. He figured it was no big deal -- until his first warning letter arrived.
"We were totally surprised," Goldman says. "It was a very serious letter. And it totally shut us up -- we haven't had a party since. But I don't really understand how the university can step in and tell me that I can't have a party. It's totally annoying."
Krauss has even dropped by problem students' houses to chat and has forced violators to write letters of apology to their neighbors. "I tell them the truth, which is that nobody wants to invade their privacy; they just need to quiet down," he says. "And they're cool with it. Someday they'll have a house and a family, and they'll recognize that there is another side to this story."
For now, though, a majority of the private-university students agree with Goldman, according to senior Bryan Villano, who represents off-campus students on DU's All Undergraduate Student Association Senate. "Students consider DU to be their own little golden bubble; they feel like this is their area to do whatever they want with."
But while students may complain, Russell says there is no legal precedent stopping the policy. "The university has the right to take an interest when it comes to crimes committed by its students or faculty," he says. "Say a bunch of students are running an off-campus methamphetamine lab or running around raping students. I think that the university would be interested in knowing about that."
And DU's Code of Student Conduct explicitly states that the school has jurisdiction off campus. "The standards of conduct primarily prohibit misconduct on University premises...but may address off-campus conduct when the behavior shows, in the University's sole judgement, that the student may threaten the welfare and safety of the University community," the document reads.
Residents on both sides of the ivy wall agree that more after-hours on-campus student programming could help to curb disturbances in the community. "Two or three years ago, there were lots of parties to go to every night on campus, but now the university has hired the police to bust 'em up," Villano says. "The students feel like there is nothing to do. Why can't the university give us a place to hang out?"
In response, DU recently applied to the Colorado Liquor Enforcement Division for a full liquor license in Sidelines Pub, a 3.2-beer bar in the Driscoll University Center. "Student programming is a major challenge for us," Krauss admits. "I think it's a great idea to have more of a campus community. The kids just want something to do."
Until that happens, students are just taking the party farther down the street.
"People aren't drinking less; they're just drinking and driving to bars and parties farther away because DU's party scene is totally getting shut down," Goldman says. "It worked better the old way."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.