Last week I was sad to see my home of many years, Dunedin, on the news - for all the wrong reasons. The annual Orientation week toga parade had gone horribly wrong. Businesses along the main street were pelted with eggs, students climbed street lamps and jumped into the crowds below them, and - worse of all - a passing car filled with scared female students was attacked, with a window being smashed.
Of course, this is inexcusable. It's quite possible to have fun - even raucous, drunken fun - without smashing stuff. I'm not going to say that, in the good old days, students didn't behave like this. When I was an Otago undergrad, this sort of destructive behaviour wasn't common; but it certainly happened in the decade before I began my studies. And my cohort weren't perfect either. My chums and I wandered merrily about town, drunk, noisy, and completely oblivious to the fact that for some people - particularly international students who haven't been exposed to heavy alcohol consumption - seeing drunkenness can be quite intimidating. (Since those days, I've got old, boring, and teetotal. Sitting down to watch Grand Designs with a cup of TV is as risque as my life gets.)
I loved living in NZ's premier student town. Dunedin has an exuberant, 'full of beans' vibe about it: it's a pleasure living alongside young people whose lives are bursting with new possibilities. I felt I could usually walk safely at night in Dunedin, in a way I couldn't in any other city I've lived in. But every now and again, walking along the street, I'd see a bunch of drunk guys coming towards me, and I'd tense myself for the nasty remark. Or I'd walk through someone's piss or vomit. Or I'd hear of an assault, or racial or homophobic abuse being shouted at other people as they walked.
There's no question that this sort of behaviour is a bad idea. What I'd like to see, though, is the Dunedin community (and other communities with the same problem) help address the problem. For example, every year the media exaggerate students' drunken antics, portraying bad behaviour as the norm while stirring community anger. This time, the media reported that students were throwing buckets of faeces at toga paraders from second story flats on the main street. Call me a skeptic, but I simply can't imagine anyone would collect turds in a bucket for weeks, for lobbing at a future passing parade.
Over the last ten or so years, landlords have erected more and more closely packed apartment-style flatting complexes in the university area, eager to capitalise on the high rents they can collect in this area. One of the city fathers, who can regularly be heard denouncing student behaviour, is a part owner of some of these complexes. The complexes are so densely packed together that there is no room on the sections to store students' rubbish, which ends up strewn on the street. And there's certainly no room for students to congregate, meaning they end up socialising and drinking on the streets.
Worst of all is the blatant promotion of excess drinking to students. The day after the toga party, the Captain Cook pub opened at 8.30 am. Students were already queuing. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out what happens when you give students alcohol for breakfast.
A lot of damage resulted from the toga party debacle. Much of it was inflicted by the students on themselves. Some will be kicked out of their residential halls or the University, and some will end up with criminal convictions which prevent them from pursuing the careers they'd hoped for. The community has a right to expect students will behave themselves - but also a responsibility not to put students in circumstances which increase the chances of bad behaviour.