As the city of Keene made various attempts over the years to address unruly behavior by Keene State College students, particularly those living in the neighborhoods to the east of the college’s Main Street campus, an oft-heard complaint of residents and landlords was that the college needs to more forcefully throw its weight behind controlling student conduct off-campus. They should be delighted with what they heard from Keene State President Melinda Treadwell at last Thursday’s City Council meeting.
The most recent council initiative to rein in disruptive behavior was proposed last month by a group of east-side residents, who urged that the city adopt a social host ordinance. Taking a new approach that shoulders responsibility on those hosting unruly parties or other gatherings, the group’s suggested ordinance would impose penalties escalating from education to fines if alcohol or illegal substances are present and if two or more types of disruptive behavior occur, such as excessive noise, indecent conduct, littering, property destruction or the like. Ultimately, their suggested ordinance envisions, landlords could also be fined for a third violation if they have not actively addressed the issue with their tenants.
The concept holds considerable promise for tackling a long-vexing issue, but to succeed, buy-in is necessary from landlords and the college. Landlords have strongly resisted past city initiatives that would have held them principally responsible for tenant behavior, citing lack of communication from the city and police and the burden of monitoring conduct, particularly on those with multiple rental units. The buy-in needed from Keene State would be two-fold. The first would be to tie host ordinance enforcement to the college’s judicial system, so that off-campus students who violate the ordinance also face meaningful disciplinary consequences from the college. But a literal buy-in is necessary, too, as shown by other college communities that have successfully buttressed similar measures by creating a community liaison position, funded in part by the local college, to follow up with violators and their landlords.
Thursday, Treadwell told the council Keene State is all-in on the social host ordinance concept. She reported promising conversations have been held with some of the larger landlords and pledged to work with them to ensure the college’s conduct expectations and enforcement support the initiative. She also said she has had conversations with City Manager Elizabeth Dragon about jointly funding city staffing that might be part of supporting enforcement of the ordinance. She summarized these commitments as “the right thing to do to ensure that we’re good citizens in the city of Keene.”
These are certainly welcome steps by Treadwell and Keene State. But as Councilor Mitch Greenwald, himself a landlord, emphasized following Treadwell’s presentation, landlord input remains important for developing a workable ordinance. As it stands now, city staff was charged last month with developing a draft ordinance to bring back to the council’s planning, licenses and development committee. With the college’s enthusiastic support and engagement, we hope a specific proposal can be brought to the council and vetted soon.
Of course, everything these days must be viewed through the COVID-19 pandemic lens. Adding urgency to the importance of controlling off-campus student behavior, Treadwell’s remarks on the host ordinance proposal accompanied her report to the council on the college’s reopening plans for the fall semester. It was a relief to hear that the planning incorporates a strong recognition of doing as much as possible to assure off-campus, as well as on-campus, students are held to meaningful social distancing, testing, limits on gatherings and other protocols.
Enforcement is again an issue, though, and Treadwell could offer no specifics as yet, saying that discussions are underway with Keene police and fire officials regarding enforcement of student conduct off-campus. Even so, she acknowledged that a social host ordinance would give the college “additional tools” in enforcing its coronavirus-related protocols and conduct expectations.
Other reopening steps described by Treadwell provide some comfort, particularly a heavy emphasis on initial and regular testing of students, with even more for off-campus students. Still, with COVID-19 infections, particularly among younger folk, spiking in other states that have rushed to reopen and done so ineffectively, the prospect of a large number of students returning to Keene this fall is certainly unsettling for not only those on the college campus but also city residents.
The college has not yet committed to having students on campus this fall, but Treadwell says a decision is expected by month’s end. If Keene State decides to bring students back, they could begin returning in mid-August. It may be unrealistic to expect council action on a social host ordinance before then, but in these very nervous times, it can’t happen soon enough.