Western Maryland to examine melee Officers overreacted, college students say


With dusk settling over Western Maryland College in Westminster, the annual Spring Fling in "Red Square" was exactly what students had hoped for -- music in the air, dancing with friends, a chance to take a break from studying.

But on a grassy hill across from the red-brick plaza, police say a different scene was playing itself out Saturday evening. Nearly 300 revelers had gathered in the quad. Some were drinking alcohol, others were removing couches and chairs from dorm rooms. A campus security guard, with bullhorn in hand, tried to disperse the crowd, but the party continued, officials said.

By the time it ended, beer bottles were flying, two students were arrested, and police in riot gear were firing pepper spray.

How did this happen at a campus where the 1,500 students generally live so quietly that their presence is unnoticed in the small city where they go to school?

No one seems to know. Police and college officials say the incident is an isolated one. The last public disturbance of this magnitude to occur at the school took place more than 20 years ago, when the local Fire Department was called to hose down rowdy students.

"This is a very quiet college," said Don Schumaker, spokesman for the school. "I can't think of anything to compare this to."

The melee is not expected to affect future Spring Fling events, a tradition at the school for at least two decades. The annual festival of music and games is designed to help students release energy before the last week of school and final exams.

"At this point, we don't have any plans to put an end to Spring Fling, and I don't think that's something we'll be looking at," Schumaker said. "We view what happened on the quad as an isolated incident that had nothing to do with Spring Fling."

Western Maryland College sits on a hill overlooking the city, population 15,000. The school was founded in 1867 and is known for its 19th-century brick buildings.

By all accounts, the incident started about 7 p.m., when a campus safety officer swept through the quad in response to complaints about rowdiness and public drinking.

After seeing open beer containers lying on the grass, the officer urged students to disperse. His warnings went unheeded, and city police were called.

"We have a very good relationship with the local Police Department," said Michael N. Webster, director of campus safety. "They are invited to patrol the campus, and often respond to incidents here at the school."

Campus safety consists of Webster and nine uniformed officers. Webster and two of the officers have police powers, but none of the officers carries a weapon. As a result, public disturbances at the school are often handled by Westminster Police Department.

But Saturday, local police say they were unable to control the crowd and asked state police to help.

About a dozen city and state police officers responded -- many of them in riot gear. A police dog unit and bicycle patrolmen were also on hand. It took more than 40 minutes -- and a plea by Philip Sayre, director of student life -- to calm the crowd. The youths dispersed after it began raining about 8 p.m.

"The incident had escalated to a point where the officers felt threatened," said Lt. Dean Brewer of the Westminster city police.

What happened next is the subject of spirited debate at the usually quiet liberal arts college. Students say police used excessive force. Brewer and Schumaker say officers, faced with an unruly crowd, acted appropriately.

"We applaud the efforts of the city and state police," said Schumaker. "We called them in because we felt we needed their assistance. The matter was then under their jurisdiction. We believe they acted appropriately in this situation."

The school's stand on the police response upset students, who felt the officers overreacted.

"They had Lynda lying on the ground, with her face on the concrete," said Maggie Lemerise, a 21-year-old senior at Western Maryland College. "It was completely unnecessary."

Lynda Elizabeth Oxley, 20, was arrested about 7: 40 p.m. and charged with second-degree assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. She was released Sunday on $3,000 bail. Oxley, interviewed at the school yesterday, would not comment on the case.

"I can't talk about it," said Oxley, a sophomore from Cherry Hill, N.J., who is majoring in studio art and art history. A July 23 court date has been set.

Also arrested during the melee was Owings resident Sean Michael Healy, 21, a junior at WMC. Healy was charged with disorderly conduct and failure to obey police orders. He was released Saturday on $2,000 bail and is scheduled to appear in court July 23. Neither Healy nor Oxley was tested for drug or alcohol use, police said.

Healy could not be reached yesterday and did not respond to a telephone message seeking comment.

"A lot of the students are upset about what happened," said David Rogers, 21, of Charles County, a senior at the school. "It was a peaceful situation that got out of hand only after police arrived. It seems like the local police were trying to make it a bigger deal than it was.

But police reports filed by patrol Officers Mark Berard and Aimee Lau the night of the incident portray an "unruly" and "obnoxious" crowd that would not clear the area, despite repeated verbal warnings.

According to the reports, a student assaulted the two officers, pushing and punching Lau in the chest and striking Berard on the chin.

"As [Lau and Berard] were making the arrest, a small crowd began showing aggression by moving toward the officers," said Brewer. "The officers sprayed pepper spray over their heads. It was not sprayed directly at anyone."

But several students said they were hit with the chemical. Lemerise said the pepper spray burned her tongue and got into another student's eyes, causing them to "swell up."

All of this, police and witnesses say, because the revelers did not obey repeated orders.

"It's very important that when an officer is instructing people to back up and move on, that they obey those orders for their own safety," Brewer said. "That is not what happened here."

Officials at WMC said they were dismayed by the incident because the school has taken steps to curb underage drinking. All freshmen this year attended 15 hours of anti-substance abuse seminars.

It was not clear yesterday whether Oxley or Healy will face disciplinary action by the school. College officials will meet tomorrow to discuss the incident, Schumaker said.

Pub Date: 5/05/98

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