Underage drinking arrests spur dialogue at New England College

  • Students walk through campus in between classes at New England College in Henniker on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. The bridge connecting campus to downtown Henniker is seen in the background. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 11/9/2018 5:57:19 PM

A house party near the campus of New England College last month that resulted in the arrest of 60 people in connection with underage drinking has spurred a campus dialogue between the college, students, residents and police.

It is a discussion familiar to university officials and local police in college towns around the state and across the country, one that attempts to correct a divisive relationship between law enforcement, residents and students.

On Thursday, Henniker police Chief Matt French appeared on a panel at NEC before a crowd of about 100 people comprised of students, faculty and administrators, as well as Henniker residents, town officials and police officers.

The event was put on by the staff of NEC’s student-produced newspaper, the New Englander, which began planning the event several weeks before the Oct. 28 house party.

“We didn’t know this was going to happen,” said Chris Donovan, an NEC student and New Englander staff writer. “We wanted to build (a better) relationship between the students and Henniker police. There’s obviously a lot of fire between all of us.”

The discussion Thursday spanned several topics but focused mostly on interactions between police and students, some of whom expressed suspicion that officers hand-pick which houses they will bust when there’s a party.

French said the Oct. 28 party, which took place at a rental property at 198 Depot Road, about a half-mile walk from NEC’s main campus, was among the largest he has seen since he first joined the department in 1992.

It is not clear precisely how many people were at the party. NEC Dean of Students Michael Taberski said there were fewer than 200.

“It’s usually manageable,” French said of the typical college party that he has responded to in past years. “I haven’t seen a 200-person party in a long time.”

As for whether officers pick and choose which parties to break up and who to arrest, French, as well as another officer who attended the panel, Stephen Dennis, flatly denied those claims.

“We had spoken with the people at that house before,” said Dennis, who was one of three Henniker officers on duty when the call came in. “We’ve been there multiple times (this semester).”

Taberski said Stanley Horton, NEC’s director of student conduct, met with the students who live in the Depot Road property after they hosted a “minor” party at the beginning of the school year.

“The guys apparently did not take that seriously,” Taberski said.

Horton could not be reached Friday.

The ranch-style home is a known “hotspot” for off-campus partying, Taberski said.

“It has been a house of concern,” he said. “It’s the most out of a neighborhood (compared to other off-campus student housing) and seems safe to have a party because there aren’t many houses nearby.”

The individuals hosting the party were charged with facilitating an underage drinking event, a misdemeanor. It is not clear how many people live in the house and were charged, nor is it clear how many of the 60 arrested were NEC students.

The arrest log from the week of Oct. 28 was not available from Henniker police Friday. Officer Cole LeTourneau said it should be available when the administrative staff returns Monday.

French said the department received two separate calls in the early hours of Oct. 28, reporting a “loud and unruly party and women being assaulted.”

Dennis and another officer responded.

“It was pouring rain and we parked down the street,” Dennis said. “It was loud enough to hear from where we parked.”

French said there were ultimately no charges of assault, but several for underage drinking, as well as one for disorderly conduct, one for criminal mischief and one for resisting arrest.

Henniker called in three of its off-duty officers to help. The department also received support from the Hillsborough and Hopkinton police departments, as well as state police. NEC provided a bus used for its athletic teams to help transfer students to the police department to be processed. The bus also returned students to campus.

The booking process took several hours due to the high number of people detained. At the forum Thursday, one female student who was arrested said she waited in the backseat of a police car for three hours and was not allowed to use a restroom.

“I went in the car because I really had no other option,” she said, adding that she stayed in the car for another hour after that until another officer came and let her out.

French denied that she was in the car that long and said, “the issue with taking a female to the bathroom is all of our officers on duty at that time were male. I am not going to put a male police officer into a position where he is taking a female off to use the  bathroom somewhere.”

Taberski said the students arrested are not at risk of being expelled due to the charges against them. 

“Underage drinking is a concern but it is one a student can learn from and grow from,” he said. 

The conduct office will put the students through a course on responsible use of alcohol and the legal ramifications of underage drinking. Taberski said the party hosts will go through a course separate from the guests.

“When we know the students are going through the court process, we don’t want to add to that,” he said. “We want to educate them … ‘Let’s talk about how you’re not going to be a nuisance to your neighbors.’ ”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3321, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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