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Working to Tame the Wild Party

Times Staff Writer

The beer kegs are being stockpiled and the police battle plans finalized. Halloween is coming to Del Playa Drive in the UC Santa Barbara community of Isla Vista, the biggest, booziest night of the year at a college ranked as one of the nation’s major party schools.

With 20,000 residents in a single square mile, Isla Vista is already considered one of the most densely populated communities in the state. On Halloween, the population can more than double -- the crowd numbered 50,000 last year.

“We call it the Mardi Gras of the West,” said Sheriff’s Cmdr. Geoff Banks, head of all Sheriff’s Department operations in south Santa Barbara County. “It’s just a sea of humanity, a tide that flows back and forth, up and down Del Playa.”

Students agree. James Kresl, one of seven students sharing a four-bedroom oceanfront Del Playa apartment, said: “It definitely gets wilder than anything else. The students here are just out for a good time.”

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This year, the Sheriff’s Department is throwing more resources into crowd control than ever before: more than 100 deputies, a mounted patrol of officers on horseback and barricades blocking off key streets.

Even in the quietest of times, Isla Vista is a problem for law enforcement. The Sheriff’s Department says Isla Vista accounts for 25% of all serious crime in the unincorporated areas of Santa Barbara County and its contract cities of Carpinteria, Goleta, Solvang and Buellton. In most years, there are no homicides. But robbery, rape, aggravated assault and burglary are on the rise. Banks estimates the increase for this year at 35% to 40%.

But it’s not violence that has contributed most to the reputation of UC Santa Barbara in recent decades.

On the positive side are three Nobel Prize winners in the last five years and a growing academic reputation.

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But there is also the image of a college where anything goes, a school of hard partying, heavy drinking and easy sex. The latest controversy is over infiltration of the campus party scene by professional pornographers who sponsor free beer parties to film students in various stages of undress and sexual activity.

Alarmed top university officials fired off a Sept. 25 letter to warn students. Michael D. Young, vice chancellor for student affairs, and Yonie Harris, dean of students, said the porn issue should be taken seriously.

Porn Party Warning

“We in the UCSB administration have no desire to monitor or regulate your private lives,” they wrote. “We do, however, believe you should be warned about an exploitative new ‘business’ practice that might impact you or your peers -- reality pornography companies that target college communities across the nation.”

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The officials added: “All this is said to remind you that decisions you make now, which may seem harmless enough, can negatively impact your career, reputation and life forever. Let’s be clear: These films are pornography for sale, and these companies are exploiting students for their profit.”

The school’s Associated Students Legislative Council officially denounced porn parties at a meeting on Oct. 8. Officials said the activity itself is apparently legal and difficult to stop, but it can be hindered, once party sites are identified, by vigorous prosecution of such laws as those covering the serving of liquor to minors.

The easy-sex image is not only damaging to the university’s reputation, but it is false, other officials say.

“It’s become urban legend now, but it is a damaging myth,” said Janice Baldwin, a sociology professor who teaches human sexuality. “Essentially there is no difference between UCSB and other schools.”

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But rape and attempted rape are not part of any new urban legend at UCSB. Officials say those crimes are on the rise. This weekend a group called Students Stopping Rape, working with UCSB’s Rape Prevention Education Program, will march down Del Playa, calling for a 24-hour truce in sexual violence.

Early on a recent Friday night, it all seemed more innocent than the usual rhetoric suggests. About 8 p.m., crowds were starting to roam Del Playa under a full moon, past apartments decorated with twinkling Christmas tree lights and giant neon beer signs. A few bands were already playing and the liquor had begun to flow. But the mood was friendly, and trouble seemed far away.

Sgt. Tom Walton, supervising a force of about 30 deputies, said this is his fourth tour of duty at Isla Vista over a 24-year career in Santa Barbara.

“The fall is always the busiest time for us,” he said. “Many young kids are alone for the first time, just learning how to handle drinking.”

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As the beer kegs emptied and midnight passed on this particular night, the mood began to change. The first arrests were made. A few students vomited violently in the alleyways. The deputies were geared up, knowing that a fight or two would break out at any moment. Before the weekend was over, they issued 107 citations and made 42 arrests on charges ranging from public intoxication to brandishing a knife.

The numbers dropped slightly the next weekend, but that was partly because of parents’ day at UCSB. There were 74 citations and 34 arrests.

But that’s all small change compared with what’s ahead. Last year, there were 253 arrests on Halloween. And when the Halloween phenomenon first surfaced, catching officials by surprise, there was one riotous night in 1992 that resulted in more than 1,000 arrests.

Pleas for Moderation

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Both law enforcement and college officials said they aren’t out to stop parties altogether. But they would like to curb the drinking and persuade landlords to take a tougher view of tenants who consistently throw the street’s wilder parties.

The reputation won’t die easily. Isla Vista acquired it decades ago, when students burned down the local Bank of America branch in 1970 during a campus riot.

A more recent incident that focused public attention on the Isla Vista party scene occurred on the night of Feb. 23, 2001, when former UCSB student David Attias drove a high-powered Saab into a crowd of Isla Vista pedestrians, killing four and critically injuring a fifth, then jumped from his car and proclaimed, “I am the angel of death!” He was judged insane and is confined to a state mental institution.

Finally there are the three fatal falls of college students in the last three years down the steep ocean cliff that runs along Del Playa Drive.

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“The whole thing makes me sad,” Banks said. “There’s a history of trouble here in a place that just shouldn’t have this sort of past.”

What scares him most is that the party scene at Del Playa could turn ugly within a few weeks if there were not a strong presence of uniformed officers to keep outside gangs and criminal predators away, Banks said.

Young, the vice chancellor of student affairs, said the university had begun sending letters to the parents of students arrested on drinking charges. There are other steps that can be taken, he said. But no single action will completely change Del Playa.

“Our goal for Isla Vista and Del Playa is not to eradicate parties,” Young said. “We have no problem with low-risk drinking. The problem is that there is very little that can be done to control the whole thing.”

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On that point, students and officials agree.

Said one coed walking down the party street: “Yeah, we party. Get over it.”


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