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Plymouth neighbors ask for respect

A family lives here! Plymouth may be a “college town,” but it is also a small New England rural village, with local family households scattered amongst the off-campus student apartments on the periphery of campus. Plymouth neighbors are undertaking a campaign to command respect from Plymouth State University students who have angered local residents with large gatherings, loud parties, drinking and unruly behavior at all hours of the day and night. (Marcia Morris) (click for larger version)
October 20, 2010
PLYMOUTH—Amidst the dizzying array of election signs dotting the edges of sidewalks and front porches downtown over the past few weeks, observant motorists and pedestrians along Highland Avenue and other streets adjacent to the Plymouth State University campus will have noticed a large number of relatively friendly looking weatherproof signs dotting the downtown with the following message: "A family lives here. Please respect our property and your Town. It is a courteous request, inviting reciprocity."

This campaign has nothing to do with elected office. It is a grassroots effort by many concerned residents in the neighborhoods surrounding Plymouth State University to communicate more effectively with students that live in and around the family residences in downtown Plymouth.

It is unclear as yet whether the message is getting across.

The signs sprouted up over town earlier this fall, as Plymouth residents began to be concerned about what they considered to be unusually rowdy behavior on the part of PSU students, including large parties, public drinking, loud noises late at night (or early in the morning), and a host of other complaints in neighborhoods where working people need to get some sleep or have small children that will have to get up to go to school in the morning.

More than 60 of these signs have been posted on front lawns all over downtown Plymouth, though some have been vandalized or stolen in recent weeks.

While some local residents report that the situation has improved from the beginning of the school year as the students have settled in and weather has gotten colder, others say they are frustrated and discouraged because this past weekend was just as bad as the first few weeks of the fall semester. They worry about the upcoming Halloween weekend.

While the reputation of Plymouth State University for academic excellence has improved markedly over the years, it has never entirely overcome its former status as a legendary "party school." Initiatives to curb unruly student behavior off campus in the neighborhoods have been a perennial agenda item on the Campus Community Council for years.

Town officials, university administrators, campus and Plymouth police, and student leaders are all working together to come up with an effective response to the recent complaints, but the issues are complex and not easily resolved.

Local resident and landlord Doug McLane says he believes the outbreak of rowdy behavior can be partially attributed to over-enrollment of the university. There is not enough on-campus housing, he says, to accommodate all the freshmen and sophomore students that are supposed to be living on campus, pushing them out into the neighborhoods and into poorly maintained properties.

Several family homes surrounding the university have been converted into student apartments in the last few years, continuing a trend that was temporarily slowed when the large Langdon Woods dormitory was opened several years ago.

But other neighbors said they felt many of the problems stemmed from on-campus freshmen and sophomores heading off campus to escape the strictures of dorm living.

Newly appointed PSU Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment, Rick Barth, is working with all cylinders firing to respond to the neighborhood complaints. He is getting pretty high marks for being quick to act and long on listening.

He says that in retrospect, the administration may not have done enough to anticipate the opening of the school year. He said the university is reinstituting programs to educate students about civic responsibility and off campus living, and reactivating the "yellow jacket" student peer patrols, among other things.

The Campus and Plymouth Police chiefs are meeting to come up with strategies for patrolling the downtown.

Frank and Jane Hinkle operate the Tea Rose Inn on Pleasant Street in downtown Plymouth. They say they have an excellent rapport with many of their student neighbors and really enjoy living in a college town, but some of the behavior they have seen worries them a lot.

"These are somebody's children," said Jane Hinkle. "I am concerned for their safety in some cases. "

She says public and underage drinking have been very serious problems.

Langdon Street residents Cindy and Terry Lawson say they feel that the university needs to take more responsibility for students' behavior off campus. They would like to see stepped up campus police presence in the neighborhoods surrounding campus.

"I love the university. I love the kids. But enough is enough," said Lawson. "Sunday morning, I had to go out and clean up the lawn from the beer bottles and other debris. Kids are screaming at the top of their lungs late at night. Tires are squealing. It just feels like there is total disrespect. I think it is a consistent problem. While it seemed to be improving for a while, I don't think we can ease up."

Linette LaPierre agrees. She says that this past weekend where she lives, there were loud arguments with offensive language and fireworks at 4 a.m.

"It's the disturbances in the middle of the night that really bother me," said LaPierre. "If the university thinks that they can police a large, expansive campus with only two officers on at night, I think they are just fooling themselves."

"I think that the college administration and the police departments have gone to great extremes to try to meet the needs of the Plymouth neighborhoods," said local resident Maureen Ebner. "They have been very responsive, and I appreciate everything they have done. But this will take a big community effort. It is an ongoing conversation that has to take place, with a tone of mutual respect on the part of both students and community members. We can't expect the students to understand our point of view if we don't make the effort to communicate with them."

Littleton Chmber
Varney Smith
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