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Parties major headache for neighbors

For years, the reputation of Southwest Texas State University as a party school has spread far and wide, and the late-night festivities sometimes spilled over into the peaceful city of 39,000 surrounding the school.

University officials contend that the rowdy reputation is as outdated as the days when the drinking age was 18, but city leaders say the university remains in party mode. The problem got so bad last year, they say, that the San Marcos City Council passed ordinances to curb the parties, which tend to migrate from bars and fraternity houses and into residential areas in the early morning hours.

“We were expending a whole lot of time and resources to get it under control,” said Sgt. Jeff Caldwell with the San Marcos Police Department.

Under the city code, police have the authority to restrict loud music coming from motor vehicles, to hold property owners responsible for noise violations and to interrupt electrical service to a residence “that is the source of an imminent threat to public safety.”

The issue reached a boiling point last Halloween, Caldwell said. Several thousand people were attending a party that effectively closed a street because of all the illegally parked cars.

Such parties can require up to five officers for as long as an hour to get things under control, Caldwell said.

“We’re not trying to eliminate parties; we’re just trying to get people to remember that they have a responsibility to the community, too,” he said.

University officials at this school of more than 25,000 students say the problem isn’t as extreme as it sounds.

“We’re talking about a very small portion of students who are engaged in these wild parties,” said Jim Studer, vice president for student affairs. “In fact, one of the landlords said the worst renters he’s had were five firefighters from Austin.”

Studer said that he has seen a videotape of the Halloween party in question and that it is not inflammatory.

“There were a bunch of people standing around looking at each other,” he said. “There was no riotous behavior on that video, and in terms of something that was out of control, it was not.”

Studer added that the perception of SWT as a heavy-duty party school isn’t fair.

“There’s no question that this was the case in the 1970s and maybe the early 1980s, but it’s a completely undeserved reputation since the 1990s,” Studer said.

The party boom started, in part, because San Marcos residents voted in 1972 to allow the sale of alcohol and a multitude of bars popped up. In 1973, the drinking age in Texas was lowered to 18, creating a whole new population of drinkers. In 1981, it was raised to 19 and returned to 21 in 1985.

The issue of parties is a thorny one for San Marcos property owners such as Steve Uzell. Like most property owners here, Uzell rents to students because of the high demand for college housing.

When he began renting out last year, he noticed trash on his property. He and some other landlords started a rental property owners association to look into the problems.

“We wanted, as owners of the property, to have a say in what happens to our property,” he said.

The new law seems to be making a difference, at least in the lives of some students.

Freshman Crystal Childs, 18, said that she attended several large parties at Southwest Texas last year and that none of them were shut down.

“This year, two or three have already been shut down,” she said.

Beginning this school year, freshmen are required to view a slide show about appropriate conduct and information on interacting positively with San Marcos residents.

The perceived negative impact of off-campus parties is a nationwide phenomenon, according to a study released this summer by the Harvard School of Public Health and published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

The study found that residents living near college campuses were more likely to report a lowered quality of life due to the secondary effects of heavy drinking, such as noise, vandalism, drunkenness, vomiting and public urination.

The study’s author, Henry Wechsler, said the reputation of a school may also affect the perceptions of students who choose to attend.

“Some people do go to schools that they either think or know are heavy-drinking schools, and they expect to do that kind of drinking,” said Wechsler, who researched the study and has written a new book called “Dying to Drink.”

The study was a random telephone survey of adults from 4,661 households nationwide. The colleges in question were not named in the study.

When it comes to resolving the rub between rowdy party-goers and community residents, Wechsler said, the answer has to come from both sides.

“The town and gown have to work together to resolve this,” Wechsler said. “The kinds of ordinances and laws that are required need to deal with the supply of alcohol at very low prices in large quantities,” such as happy hours and 10-cent beer promotions.

But Wechsler cautions that such tensions don’t apply just to college towns.

“Communities have had to deal with noise issues and disturbing-the-peace issues outside of being near colleges,” he said. “This is not just the problem of college students.”

Staff writer Bill Hanna contributed to this report.