February 25, 2008 in City

Violence climbing near WSU campus

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Rajah Bose photo

Washington State University senior Kyle Descher’s jaw was broken in a bar attack in Pullman last month after a group of men used a racial epithet to refer to him. He said he still feels uneasy walking around. “I’d feel better if knew who it was” who attacked him, he said.
(Full-size photo)

Two attacks – and two broken jaws – have gotten most of the attention on the subject of violence this year at Washington State University.

But police statistics show that fistfights, brawls and other public confrontations have been rising in Pullman for years. The number of assaults reported to Pullman police has climbed 41 percent since 2000, and the number of disorderly conduct complaints – which can include “assaultive behavior” – has more than doubled, according to Police Department statistics.

Now the city and university are exploring ways to get a grip on the problem. Pullman police Chief Ted Weatherly is asking the City Council to make fighting a civil infraction with a $250 fine – even if the people fighting choose not to file a complaint. That happens frequently now, Weatherly said, and it hampers efforts to prosecute assaults under state law.

The university and President Elson Floyd, meanwhile, are in the early stages of proposing a “university district” in the College Hill area. That would establish some shared governance between the city and WSU in the neighborhood closest to the school, which is notorious for drunken parties, litter and vandalism.

“I am not talking about just a few loud parties,” Floyd wrote in an essay posted online Feb. 12. “Too often, police reports from College Hill talk of assaults and other criminal behavior.”

Weatherly said the problems – virtually all of which involve college students or college-age men – make it important to create “immediate consequences” for violence.

“We’ve got to put a stop to this,” Weatherly said. “We have a lot of kids up there who tell me they’re afraid when they see these drunks getting rowdy.”

Weatherly’s proposal is being reviewed by the city attorney’s office to make sure it can pass “judicial muster” before going before the City Council.

“The message we’re going to send is you just don’t fight in Pullman,” Weatherly said.

If that became true, it would mark a change. According to city statistics, assaults rose from 95 to 134 a year from 2000 to 2007. Disorderly conduct reports rose from 96 to 203. Those figures represent the whole city, but Weatherly said most originate on College Hill.

According to a report prepared by Weatherly, 24 patients went to Pullman Regional Hospital for treatment of injuries suffered in fights in 2007, and three required overnight hospitalization.

Then there are the two most serious cases. In one, a string of fights between members of two fraternities in October resulted in what the student conduct board called an “unprovoked attack” on one man that left him with a broken jaw. Three students face felony charges in that case.

In the other, a Korean-American student was sucker-punched in a College Hill bar after a racial insult in January. No one saw – or would say they saw – the attack, and police say they have no leads.

“My concern is the nature of the violence,” Weatherly said. “It seems to be getting more violent.”

No witnesses

Kyle Descher just got his jaw unwired, about a month after he was struck without warning at Stubblefields on College Hill, a popular bar known as Mike’s. Descher said that a group of three men twice used a racial epithet in referring to him, shortly before the attack.

The incident has prompted supporters of Descher to raise a $6,000 reward for information on a suspect, attracted statewide public attention in the wake of a newspaper column about the attack that ran in several newspapers, including The Spokesman-Review, and prompted a rally against hate crimes on the WSU campus.

Descher said that he sees the attack as an anomaly and that he doesn’t think Pullman has a particular problem with violence.

“I believe there is an excessive amount of violence in the world, and on college campuses in general, but to single out WSU alone is not fair,” he wrote in an e-mail interview last week.Doug Heyamoto of Spokane, chairman of the Washington state Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, said that while the attack on Descher was distressing, he was pleased with the response his group has received from the university and city. But he said that WSU has a history of conflicts with civil rights groups over racially charged incidents, and that people should demand that the university improve its campus climate on race relations.

“The citizens of Pullman and students of the University have a right to be protected from discrimination and bias by law enforcement and University policies,” he wrote in a statement.

Police never found a lead in the Descher case, because no one would say they saw what happened. Police are hoping the reward jogs something loose.

“I find it hard to believe that no one saw it,” Weatherly said.

He said that while it seems the racial slur and the punch were likely connected, the case is cold with regard to the assault – let alone a hate-crime prosecution, which requires authorities to prove a suspect’s state of mind.

‘Trying to take more action’

The attack on Descher came about three months after another student had his jaw broken. That attack followed several confrontations between members of two fraternities, Delta Chi and Theta Chi.

The university and police came down hard on the students – WSU temporarily moved freshmen out of both houses and investigated. It has allowed freshmen back into Theta Chi, but not Delta Chi.

Three former members of Delta Chi face felony charges in the attack. The university’s student conduct board said the fraternity had shown a “propensity for violence,” had not cooperated with investigators and had committed the “most egregious sorts of violation” of the student conduct code.

In that case, police complained about one of their biggest problems in investigating fights – often, neither the witnesses nor those directly involved will cooperate. At the time, one officer told the Moscow-Pullman Daily News that such a lack of cooperation is pronounced among fraternities.

“I will say that, historically, if a member of a fraternity goes running back into a fraternity house and you knock on the door and ask what happened, it’s very rare that they will say, ‘Gosh, Officer, yeah. Come right in. A guy just came running in here covered in blood. Let’s go find him,’ ” Sgt. Sam Sorem said.

Several fraternity members interviewed last week said they disagreed with that characterization, and they pointed to programs on violence they’ve hosted with police and efforts to improve community ties in the College Hill neighborhood.

When problems arise in fraternities, the fraternity members said, the chapters have rules and consequences for dealing with them that other student living arrangements lack.

Chase Gunnell, president of Delta Chi, said his chapter has kicked out the men who were charged criminally in the attack and hosted a program on violence with the Police Department earlier this month.

“We don’t want to be one of the contributing factors to violence in Pullman,” he said.

Ben Martinez, director of public relations for the Interfraternity Council, said he doesn’t believe fighting is a big part of student life at WSU.

“That is not commonplace at all,” he said. “I’ve been here for three years. I haven’t been part of (a fight) nor have I seen one.”

But the public profile of fighting has increased dramatically this year, in part because of an aggressive response by university and city officials, students say.

“I feel that the university is trying to take more action than in years past, as far as holding students accountable,” said Daniel Brewer, former president of Theta Chi.

‘A better environment’

The idea to create a university district in the College Hill area is in its infancy, said WSU’s Mel Taylor, executive director of real estate. It would have to go through a lot of discussion and planning with city officials before anything concrete could occur.

In a broad sense, though, the university and city would share jurisdiction in the College Hill neighborhood over policing, infrastructure and other issues. Taylor said that the concentration of students and others living right next to WSU – as is the case with colleges around the country – create “urban-style” problems in the rural town, making it hard for the Police Department to keep up.

“We’re not trying to say the city’s ignored the problem of fighting or whatever it is,” he said. “It’s just they’re outgunned, or outmanned.”

A university district would not affect the city’s tax base, he said, and would primarily mean that WSU brought in additional resources to bear against the problems.

“Overall, we think it’s a way to make a better environment for everyone here,” he said.

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