Education

UNC-Chapel Hill students face charges over large parties

Posted August 27, 2020 8:58 p.m. EDT

— Large parties at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have resulted in criminal charges for four students, and town officials say they hope others will get the message that risky behavior during a pandemic won't be tolerated.

Michael Andrew Costello, 20, of Rockville Center, N.Y., Peter James Deering, 19, of Charlotte, Duwe Gallagher Farris, 19, of Charlotte, and James Dohlman, 20, of Chapel Hill, all face a misdemeanor charge of violating a state executive order. The charges carry a fine of up to $1,000, and repeat violators could face up to 60 days in jail.

The charges are in connection with parties Chapel Hill police had to break up on Aug. 20 at the Phil Delta Theta fraternity house, at 304 S. Columbia St., and an off-campus residence at 604 Church St., according to police reports.

During the pandemic, indoor gatherings are limited to 10 people to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Police said they responded to a complaint about a loud party at the fraternity house and saw the windows had been covered with black plastic, but officers were able to peer through gaps in the plastic and saw about 50 people inside.

Fraternity members declined to comment Thursday.

On the same night as the fraternity party, police responded to another party and found students trying to run out the back door of the Church Street house when officers arrived. Few of those inside were wearing masks – also mandated statewide by executive order – police said.

Residents there couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.

"I don’t want it to seem like all these students are engaging in this bad behavior," said Chapel Hill Town Council member Tai Huynh, a recent UNC graduate. "There’s a segment of the student community that is engaging in reckless and irresponsible behavior."

UNC-Chapel Hill last week halted in-person classes for undergraduates and asked many to leave campus because of a growing number of virus infections.

At least 13 clusters of coronavirus – a cluster is five or more related cases – have been reported so far, including the latest one in Cobb Residence Hall on Thursday. UNC-Chapel Hill reports that 635 students tested positive for the virus between Aug. 10, when the fall semester started, and Sunday. About 140 students are in isolation or quarantine on campus.

All UNC-Chapel Hill students were required to sign statements before returning to class that they would wear masks on campus, limit the size of gatherings, practice social distancing and abide by other rules designed to keep the virus in check. Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz acknowledged last week when he called for shifting classes online that too many students didn't hold up their end of the deal.

Chapel Hill officials have pressed for weeks for the university to take a tougher stance on students breaking the rules and putting community health at risk.

Orange County last month cut off late-night alcohol sales and ordered restaurants to close their dining rooms at 10 p.m. after hearing stories about students partying into the wee hours. Chapel Hill leaders, after seeing video on social media of a large sorority gathering off campus, decided to get police involved in breaking up big parties.

But some still worry that charging students will only create ill will in the town.

"I believe we should continue to focus on education as our message and continuing to push the university to collaborate effectively," Town Councilwoman Karen Stegman said in an email Wednesday to other council members. "I am concerned about the increasing tension between students and non-students and believe the role of the Town should be to actively promote cooperation in the community."

"Ultimately, the purpose of police involvement should be deterrence rather than punishment," Town Councilman Michael Parker responded in an email. "Thus, letting folks – whether students, year-round residents or anyone else – know that failure to follow the rules (after the use of warnings and the like) will have consequences."

Huynh said Chapel Hill officials want UNC-Chapel Hill to discipline students for violations.

"There are universities across the country who are dealing with this exact same situation, and we seeing that those universities are employing much more punitive measures for students that are repeat offenders, like suspensions and things like that," he said.

Guskiewicz and other administrators put fraternities and sororities on notice a few weeks ago that they could lose university funding and access to campus facilities and that leaders could be expelled for violations. They sent another letter to the organizations on Monday, warning that the groups need to cooperate with public health officials regarding virus tests and contact tracing.

"We know positive outcomes will require more collaboration on education and enforcement from both the town and the University to reinforce the importance of these public health orders on and off campus," Guskiewicz wrote in a Wednesday letter to Chapel Hill officials.

"We have dealt with, and are dealing with, several dozen cases arising from conduct on and off campus," he said. "We can assure you that the University, working alongside these county and state agencies, will do all we can to achieve student compliance."

Huynh said he wishes citations weren't needed, but he said he hopes they send a message to students thinking about hosting parties.

"There are real consequences to that, especially in the midst of a global pandemic," he said.

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