Parades over prudence

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

The State of Iowa doesn't have the death penalty.

But we have Veishea.

And now Iowa State University officials say the annual celebration - which has been plagued by binge-drinking-fueled riots and criminal behavior over the last two decades - will not only be reinstated for 2006, but continue in a "wet" environment with no curtailment of the school's normal alcohol policies.

Iowa State University president Gregory Geoffroy's reinstatement of Veishea is one of the more reckless decisions ever made by a public official in this state.

And last Monday, when he formally announced his decision to allow drinking on campus during Veishea, Geoffroy added some kick to the death march that is Veishea, a celebration destined to result in student injuries and destroy the school's reputation.

Geoffroy suspended Veishea 2005 following a Campustown riot in the early morning hours of April 18, 2004. The disturbance south of the Iowa State campus resulted in 37 arrests and $250,000 in damages and recovery costs to public and private property.

There were riots in 1988, 1992 and 1994 as well. Additionally, a man was fatally stabbed in Ames during the 1997 Veishea.

But the spring celebration, an acronym of the colleges that were part of ISU when the festival started in 1922 (Veterinary, Engineering, Industrial, Science, Home Economics and Agriculture), has been resurrected for 2006.

"It's mainly because there is so much good to Veishea," Geoffroy said in a recent interview. "There is so much value that comes from Veishea for the institution and for our students."

To be sure there are two Veisheas.

There's the daytime one with moms pushing strollers and proud dads showing off their patent-producing alma mater to sons at a parade.

But then there's the nocturnal Veishea.

As the sun recedes and families head home, the frat rats and dorm drunkards

- and their out-of-town visitors/victims - wake from their Thursday/Friday

benders ready for a staggering display of hooliganism usually reserved for

seriously sauced soccer fanatics in Europe.

To say Veishea's Disney moments outweigh the violent acts is akin to a date rapist claiming a victim's evening wasn't a total horror because, well, he

bought her a nice dinner before drugging and assaulting her.

I've seen a Veishea riot first hand.

It's worse than you think.

A decade ago, as a reporter for The Daily Tribune in Ames, I covered the Franklin Avenue riot in which about 2,000 drunken revelers went wilding on the west side of Ames, just blocks from campus.

They showered police with rocks and bottles, terrorized area residents, damaged local businesses and ripped down a large fence on Lincoln Way with ferocity one would expect from aggrieved parties in the Third World, not a bunch of generally middle-class kids from Iowa.

In the early morning hours of that riot, I quickly interviewed then Ames police chief Dennis Ballantine at the corner of Lincoln Way and Franklin.

There were bottles and rocks landing at our feet. He offered me a helmet.

When I reminded ISU president Geoffroy of that episode (which occurred before his time as university chief) he cited recent fires at the University of Northern Iowa and disruptions at the University of Wisconsin around Halloween as if to say it is all just inevitable.

"These things just happen around university communities," Geoffroy said.

"Our role is to try and create an environment that will make it less likely that those kinds of occurrences will occur."

So if it's not problems with Veishea, will it be something else?

"I would hope not, but it has been at other places," Geoffroy said.

Is Veishea so vital to the school that it's worth risking lives? And with the festival's track record no reasonable person can maintain that there's no risk of injuries to people or damage to property with Veishea.

"Nothing is ever worth the risk of life," Geoffroy said. "Hopefully we'll never have a situation like that again. You always have those kinds of risks you take. We'll do everything we can to minimize the probability of problems."

But for many of us who spent time on Franklin Avenue that weekend in 1994, there's no doubt that Veishea is nothing but trouble.

Yes, a riot can conceivably happen any time in Ames - just as families can exchange Christmas gifts any day of the year.

They don't, though.

Certain days are for certain things.

Veishea has an ugly reputation, a self-fulfilling one that school officials can't shake. The mere mention of Veishea clearly inspires a mob mentality.

Fortunately, at this point Veishea problems aren't seriously undermining the reputation of an otherwise outstanding university.

But if the body bags pile up at a burning dorm, or tricked-out kids pull a deadly stunt, or a group of visiting high school girls gets sexually assaulted in a mosh pit of debauchery at an off-campus Veishea party, ISU officials will look incomprehensibly naive for dreamily putting the future of parades ahead of prudence.

* Douglas Burns is a columnist with the Carroll Daily Times Herald, and occasionally shares a guest opinion for Pilot-Tribune readers.