Is Durham 'sandbox' for Duke 'cats'?

May 15, 2009 4:16:26 AM PDT
Wild parties and college life seem to go together at campuses across the country - including our big three in Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham.

But it's the parties in Durham that have been the most controversial in recent years - prompting one local leader to compare Duke students to cats who use the Bull City as their sandbox.

"Fall and spring are usually the worst times of year. However, when there's a fraternity next door to you, it seems to be all year round," offered Trinity Heights board member Christine Westfall.

Westfall claims party season wreaks havoc on her historic neighborhood every year.

"I don't know why somebody would just throw their trash in my yard or vomit in my grass. I know I didn't do that when I was 18 and 20, so I don't think it's just an issue of age," she told Eyewitness News.

Neighbors think the problem can be traced to a party culture at the university.

"I've lived in this neighborhood for 15 years, and when the students are out of town - or Duke is not in session - these problems do not exist," said Trinity Heights board member David Bowden.

About 800 Duke students are allowed to live off campus, and most do so with no problems. But Eyewitness News was there when five houses got warning letters from Durham County ABC law enforcement and Durham police.

"We had a noise complaint and they were telling us to keep it down," one student explained.

Officials also told them to pick up their trash, which they did.

When we asked, one student said: "We feel like we've been targeted."

But targeted for good reason if you ask Bill Wilson - an expert on the effects of alcohol and a Trinity Park resident. - who says house parties have gone unchecked for years.

"We need to have extreme enforcement so that we can teach these folks they just cannot go out and drink and misbehave," he offered.

Video obtained by Eyewitness News shows there is some enforcement. The pictures show one student being handcuffed and cited for having an open container in his truck. On the same night, a raid on a popular bar near campus got another student a ticket for drinking underage and she wasn't happy about it.

"Why did you arrest me?" asks the student in the video.

"Because you're under 21," an officer responds.

"The entire population is under 21. That's not fair!" she complains.

When pleading doesn't work, she gets angry and plays the Duke card.

"I'll pay your f---ing fee! I don't care! It's nothing!" she cries. "I don't care! I just don't want this on my record. You don't understand, okay! Like it doesn't matter. I don't go to f-ing Durham Tech. I don't go to Central. I go to Duke."

"I hate you guys. I hate you. You're so awful," she continues. "I don't give a f---! It's $100 dollars. I can make that like in a day!"

"Just wait until I get back home to New Jersey. I will sue you!" it went on.

While most agree it's a small number of students making a big impact on local neighborhoods, it's been enough to force meetings between Duke's president and city leaders.

"It is an ongoing problem that has not been rectified. But, a small minority of Duke seniors who live off campus are treating our neighborhoods like they're the cool cats and our neighborhoods are the sandbox," said Durham City Councilman Eugene Brown.

"Duke is a terrific asset to Durham in many ways but I think they have a blind spot and that is they need to understand that they do have some negative impacts on the community. This is one of them. They should take responsibility for it," said Westfall.

Duke has taken steps to curb noise complaints and alcohol arrests by purchasing and renovating several homes, hiring a fulltime liaison to work with the campus and the community, increasing patrols, plus students run the risk of disciplinary action on campus if they're in trouble off campus.

Any college, any university is going to have an issue with off campus activity with students. That's the nature of colleges and universities," explained Mike Schoenfeld with Duke.

Duke officials say it's an issue they take very seriously - pointing out off-campus complaints and violations are down this year and also suggesting landlords share the blame.

"We have encouraged, strongly encouraged the city to hold property owners accountable for their properties as well. None of these things are easy. None of them happened overnight," said Schoenfeld.

But for some Durham leaders, Duke is slow on hard line solutions.

"There are a lot of remedies here. There are a lot of tools in our tool box. What's missing is the Duke tool," said Brown.

Click here to read a letter from Mayor Bell to Duke and a list of recommendations (.pdf)

As the sniping continues between town and gown, folks in Trinity Heights wait, and hope.

"I feel like most of the students who live here are great neighbors," said Westfall.

But it's the rowdy few who have them feeling not so neighborly these days.

"The thing I would like to say to the students is if you would not do it in your parent's neighborhood, then, when you move off campus, don't do it in our neighborhood," said Bowden.


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