Durham braces for Cinco De Mayo

Bret Belden

Temperatures are forecasted to reach 75 degrees on the day that the University of New Hampshire students have deemed as the heaviest drinking date of the year based on previous experiences.
Cinco de Mayo falls on a Tuesday this year, which is designated as the university’s reading day before final exams begin on Wednesday, May 6. Based on the school calendar put together by the Faculty Senate, students will have no classes, leading to greater concern than usual from local law enforcement regarding potential student activity.
In previous years, thousands of students have gathered at off-campus locations, ensuing celebrations of warmer weather and excessive alcohol consumption. In 2013, UNH made headline news when riots broke out, forcing riot police to respond and shoot students with pepper spray and pepper balls, according to a report by Seacoast Online. While last year’s celebration was more contained, there is always reason for worry.
“When the last day of school is Monday and the ‘reading day’ is on Cinco de Mayo, I think it’s the reality of what’s going to happen,” said David Kurz, chief of the Durham Police Department.
“The inherent problem is that everything we can expect is a guestimate. This phenomenon of day drinking is relatively new to the community and it’s really not based on anything other than seemingly the alignment of Cinco de Mayo.”
Kurz sees specific preparations as an unpredictable task, considering police don’t necessarily know what to expect.
“It really creates a significant challenge for us to anticipate ‘what,’” he said.
This year, the Oyster River School District, which includes Durham, Lee and Madbury, is taking this ‘mass gathering day’ more seriously.
A memo sent out to the school community by Superintendent of Schools James Morse on April 25 stated, “Last year we could see hundreds of UNH students partying right from Principal Richard’s office window.”The memo also referenced the concern from parents when it comes to their school-aged children being exposed to an intoxicated environment.
The memo recommended that Oyster River students not walk home after school and that alternative bus routes be made to avoid the party gatherings. Morse also referenced that the school district hopes to work with the UNH Faculty Senate in the future to prevent Cinco de Mayo from being a class-free day again.
“What’s happening is there is this underlying fermentation, if you will, that people are upset that we are even having the discussion about alternate bus routes and school closings,” Kurz said.
Kurz recognized that no parent wants his or her younger child exposed to such an environment. In the past, Cinco de Mayo has been seen as a basic disruption in the everyday lives of Durham town residents.
UNH is organizing alternative events to redirect focus from off-campus gatherings. A block party will be held behind Stoke Hall from 1:30 to 5 p.m. on May 5. Dining Services will provide food, games and activities.
“Student Senate has been active in the planning process for the UNH Block Party,” said Cameron Cook, who takes over as UNH’s new student body president on May 1. “[Current] Student Body President Sweeney, my Vice President Ryan [Grogan] and I were a part of the task force to organize the initiative and our input was used in the planning of this event.”
President Mark Huddleston released an email to the student body on Wednesday, April 29, outlining the expectations for the upcoming week. He called for celebrations to be “respectful and safe.”
“Let me also be clear that there will be immediate and serious consequences for irresponsible behavior that violates our code of conduct or the law,” Huddleston wrote. “That includes suspension or expulsion from the university, even if you’re just days away from graduation. Please respect each other, the campus, and our Durham community.”
Chief Kurz sees the week ahead as a demanding one for both the Durham and UNH police departments.
“I’m not giving an excuse but it’s been a tough winter, it’s the end of the semester and it’s the last time people are going to be seeing their friends before they go home,” Kurz said. “The stars are aligned, including the weather it sounds like, for a challenge.”
Despite the concern, Kurz ensures that tactics to regulate the day will stem from the need to keep the community safe.
“[You’ll see] teams of officers in various locations, not only to ensure appropriate conduct, but also that no one gets hurt,” he said. “We’ll have a smile on our face and we’re going to try to keep things under control and keep things moving.”
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