Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 28, 2012

How WVU’s couch-burning tradition spawned riots


Mountaineer News Service

— MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – In the hours after West Virginia University’s football team beat the University of Texas Oct. 6, more than 1,000 students filled the streets of Morgantown, toppling a light pole and setting fires to the pole and nearby cars. Approximately 40 fires blazed that night and when the firefighters and police arrived to quell them, students threw rocks and beer bottles at them. Police eventually had to use riot gear and pepper-spray to break up the mob.

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A student jumps through flames set on Grant Avenue to “celebrate”  WVU’s football victory over Texas.

WVU students and fans have become notorious over the years for their rowdy celebrations after big sports victories or losses, including burning couches, dumpsters, cars and anything in their path. Fire-setting is almost a weekly occurrence, especially during football and basketball seasons.

Morgantown Fire Department records show that in the last 15 years, there have been 1,799 street fires and 633 dumpster fires, totalling 2,432 fires. In 2011, 40 students were expelled or suspended for burning couches and similar violations. But this year’s October riot was the worst fire officials have seen.

“We’ve had events in the past where things were thrown at police officers or firefighters,” said Morgantown Fire Marshall Ken Tenant. “But the riot [after the Texas game] was the most violent that I have witnessed in my career here as far as how the first-responders were treated by the rioters.”

In the aftermath of the Texas game, public outcry demanded that WVU and the city of Morgantown do more to prevent fires and riots. WVU President Jim Clements said to WVUtoday that he is angry and frustrated with this behavior and it will not be tolerated. The WVU Student Government Association sponsored a  “Speak-Up Tuesday” to discuss solutions and alternatives for post-game activities, according to The DAonline. Morgantown Mayor Jim Manilla suggested enacting a $20 fee to be charged to all WVU students, which would raise $1.2 million for the city to hire more police and firefighters to help curb the riots.

“How do you connect the dots between your team and my team winning a big game, to picking up something and throwing it at a first responder to kill or injure them?” said Tenant. “How do you connect those two events? I can’t.”

According to Tenant, the fire-setting tradition started at WVU in the mid-1970s when, following a win over rival University of Pittsburgh, students lit bonfires all along University Avenue. Since then, the fires have become more prevalent and dangerous. The riot earlier this month was the fifth declared riot in the last 20 years.

Tenant says that a mob mentality seems to take over among students after big football and basketball games. Along with stepping up law enforcement efforts to penalize students who start these fires, he believes there has to be a change in the university’s cultural mindset, so that students no longer regard couch-burning and throwing beer bottles as “cool” behavior.

Kelsey Pape, a former WVU student who recently graduated, agrees. She was a victim of malicious burning last year when her car was set on fire. The damage to her car cost $2,000 to fix, Pape says.

“Who wants to be known as the school that burns couches?” Pape says. “It’s embarrassing.”

Tenants says students will allow such fires to occur until the behavior becomes unacceptable to the larger community. In the meantime, he says, the Morgantown fire and police department needs to expand its capability to deal with the fires and rioting students. The Morgantown Fire Department has only added one person to its staff since 1967, he says. Yet since that time, the student population at WVU has grown from around 12,000 to approximately 30,000 students.

“We’re going to have to look at expanding services here if we keep having these types of events,” Tenant says.

The Morgantown Fire Department receives half of its budget from a fire service fee. All property owners in the city of Morgantown, including the university, pay this fee. The other half of the department’s budget is paid by the city.

“That fee goes to cover the cost of the fire department coming to your house or apartment for an emergency,” said Tenant. “The fee doesn’t include responding to couch fires or dumpster fires. No one is paying for that so it comes out of the city’s money.”

WVU is currently taking steps to strengthen its expulsion policies, says Becky Lofstead, Assistant Vice President of University Communications. University officials are reviewing the case of each student caught during the riots to determine whether he or she should be expelled, suspended or perform community service.

“The university is enacting a zero tolerance policy on students who cause vandalism or property damage, attack the first responders or drink underage,” Lofstead says.

Kelsey Pape’s rear bumper destroyed by a couch fire set by students after a football game. It cost more than $2,000 to repair.

Four WVU students were arrested and charged with malicious burning during the Oct. 6 riot, and 12 students are currently awaiting a hearing with the WVU Student Affairs Board to determine their punishment. Most of the names and charges have yet to be released.

Lofstead says that the university is also creating a stronger law-enforcement presence in  and around football games, and are even enlisting the help of volunteer students called “Student Cadets.” These students will help fight the fire-setting culture and provide a friendly face to law enforcement on behalf of other students. The cadets are students talking to other peers offering help before an incident happens.

Some students have taken it upon themselves to generate change on campus. WVU students Summer Ratcliff and Brady Tucker have started a campaign called “Protect Morgantown,” which encourages students and citizens to patrol areas where fires are often set and alert local law-enforcement. The Protect Morgantown Facebook page suggests that if students stand beside area dumpsters after a major win, they could prevent fires from happening.

“If we were able to get 20 to 30 groups in these high-fire areas, we could help our local police and fire department tremendously,” the Facebook page says.

Drew Burgess, a WVU medical student, agrees that students need to be the ones who police themselves when it comes to the couch fires.

“We should be the ones who intervene and stop other students from acting like this instead of standing around watching,” Burgess says. “It’s all about respecting each other and each other’s property.”