Residents blaming vandalism on students

On Wednesday, David Skinner of Radcliffe Street in downtown Charleston picks up the pieces to his $25,000 antique fountain that was destroyed recently by what he thinks was a drunken college-age vandal.

They see drunks pass out on their porches, urinate on their lawns, yell at each other in the early morning hours.

They pick up needles, red Solo cups, used condoms from their yards.

Vandals steal street numbers off their houses, rip up potted flowers and punch their mailboxes.

Residents of downtown neighborhoods near the College of Charleston liken the atmosphere that keeps them awake on weekends to the movie “Animal House” or New Orleans’ Bourbon Street.

The primary culprit, they say: students leaving King Street bars or house parties, and walking to their rental homes or parked cars in nearby communities.

Their complaint isn’t new, but it’s one they say has snowballed as more bars and restaurants populate the Holy City’s entertainment districts. While city and college officials insist that current programs keep the problem in check, the residents think the issue could endanger Charleston’s reputation as a mannerly, world-class city.

The residents summoned the college last month to increase policing around the campus and the city to boost patrols in neighborhoods, not just on corridors such as King Street. But they were met with hesitation from the school, they said.

A new ordinance requiring bars to bolster their own security forces should free up police officers to handle the concerns, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said. By the year’s end, Mullen also aims to get funding for another dozen officers to complement those patrols.

“We don’t give college students a pass because they’re college students,” Mullen said. “If they’re breaking the law … we’ll address it.”

For David Skinner, an antiques dealer who lives in a historic Radcliffe Street house, the constant carousing prompted him to install surveillance cameras.

His breaking point came June 1 when a college-age man shoved over the 140-year-old water fountain in his fenced-in yard. His cameras filmed the vandal who reduced the $25,000 fountain to five pieces. Skinner has offered $5,000 to anyone who helps capture, convict and make an example of the perpetrator.

“They’re using my house as a trash can and a toilet,” he said. “It’s just a free-for-all.”

When the presidents of a half-dozen neighborhood associations north of Broad Street met May 13 with city and college officials, they hoped to establish cooperation with the school.

Some walked out disappointed.

They were told that the College of Charleston isn’t necessarily the source of troublemaking students, according to two people who attended the summit. The school also doesn’t have the financial wherewithal for more public safety officers to patrol nearby communities, they said.

“Another red Solo cup night” is what residents of Mazyck Wraggborough, which is northeast of the campus, call especially bad evenings, said Vangie Rainsford, who heads the neighborhood association. Those nights end with the plastic cups littering their streets, Rainsford said.

Rainsford tries to hush the drunkards whose unnecessary screaming wakes her. They tell her to get a life, she said. Other residents have been met with death threats.

She recently saw a college-age man hop into a car outside her Chapel Street home, then hit three parked vehicles as he tried to drive away.

“Are we going to have a tragedy before something gets done?” Rainsford said. “Clear heads need to get together, but we’re not getting that spirit of cooperation from the college.”

City Councilman Mike Seekings, whose district includes the 11,000-student college, said school officials could be more mindful of residents’ beefs, but that communication has improved recently.

But the key, he said, is following through with punishment when students are implicated in incidents.

“The city is not a college campus,” Seekings said. “It’s not a defense to say, ‘Hey, I’m in college, and I was drinking.’”

House parties often are the source of grief.

In mid-March, graffiti was scratched or scribbled onto 14 cars in Harleston Village, just south of the campus. The words “drunk (expletive) scratched my glasses” were carved into a Volkswagen’s trunk, a police report stated.

The damage was estimated at nearly $10,000.

Two young men, including an 18-year-old student, were arrested after the police said they were caught on camera. A witness pointed to a St. Patrick’s Day party as the source of the vandals.

In Radcliffeborough just north of the campus, neighborhood association President Robert Ballard said the college should assume responsibility for policing students beyond the blocks it occupies.

Ballard’s community, he said, suffers more than others because 60 percent of its homes are rentals. At some of the seven churches and a synagogue in Radcliffeborough, grave headstones have been knocked over or smashed. Church properties also become parking lots for King Street revelers.

His association bought trash cans and dispersed them communitywide in hopes that students properly dispose of their refuse. But they seem to miss a lot, he said.

“My wife puts a lot of effort into planting flowers, but they are destroyed consistently by some drunken passerby,” Ballard said. “Someone has to learn them.”

Some residents think the College of Charleston should start by offering a class encouraging students to respect the historic districts they live in.

Others think the police should focus on underage drinking by frequently raiding bars for fake identifications.

The college said it’s already doing its best.

President George Benson regularly attends neighborhood meetings and adopts residents’ suggestions, the college said in a statement.

On Fridays, peer leaders walk King Street from 10 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. to diffuse “negative situations involving alcohol and crime,” the statement added. The school also offers a free shuttle service so that students don’t walk home. Community relations employees give out their cellphone numbers and encourage residents to voice concerns.

“Very few” noise complaints against students were fielded in the most recent school year, the statement said.

“Students are asked to be good neighbors,” the school said. “The college expects its students to behave responsibly.”

For the city’s police chief and Mayor Joe Riley, the new ordinance requiring bars to hire larger security staffs is a good start. Mullen said the measure will free up the eight officers assigned to King Street to disperse into the communities. It will encourage bars to find taxis for departing customers.

But the chief said he expects the college to pitch in. Campus public safety officers often tag along with the city police on weekend evenings.

The mayor and Benson explained their respective efforts during the meeting with neighborhood officials last month.

An example of collaboration between the city’s livability unit and the college, Riley said, is a program that includes weekend cleanups as students move out of apartments and leave behind trash and unwanted furniture.

“When you’re awakened and you have to get to work early the next day, that’s a big inconvenience,” the mayor said. “The college is beneficial in so many ways to the city, but we need to make sure those inconveniences don’t impair life.”