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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Majoring in Arson at West Virginia University

     At West Virginia University (WVU), a well-known party school, there is a really stupid and dangerous student tradition that dates back to the late 1970s. When the football team, the Mountaineers, win or lose a big game, students either celebrate, or vent their anger, by getting drunk, and setting what the local authorities call "street fires." The boozed-up kids pour gasoline into dumpsters, onto stuffed furniture (sometimes purchased for that purpose), and onto piles of rubbish, then set these highly flammable combustibles on fire. Most of the arson (legally called malicious burning because structures are not involved) takes place in the student-dominated, low-rent part of town called Sunnyside, or as the students refer to the neighborhood, "Scummyside."

     Between 1997 and 2003, Morgantown, the site of more than 1,200 street fires, had the highest per capita incendiary fire rate in the country. After the Mountaineer's win in November 2002 over Virginia Tech, celebrating WVU students set 90 large street fires, and dozens of less spectacular blazes. The police charged 20 students with malicious burning, a misdemeanor that usually involves a fine of up to $1,000. A few of the fire setters were expelled, but most were merely disciplined. In this fire setting spree, a police officer was punched, and a car went up in flames. This was just another big weekend in Fire City, West Virginia.

     In 2005, city officials, in anticipation of another flame-filled football weekend, ordered Sunnyside residents to remove all stuffed chairs, couches, and flammable debris from their porches and yards. (This is asking a lot from a West Virginian.) There were street fires that weekend, but no one's house burned to the ground.

     In May 2011, WVU students, celebrating the completion of exam week, blew off steam by getting drunk and lighting-up 18 dumpsters and 11 couches. One of the drunken idiots received facial burns after pouring two gallons of gasoline into a dumpster then hanging around to admire his work. The low-grade explosion took off his eyebrows and knocked him on his butt. (I hope he wasn't a criminal justice major, or a future TSA screener.) A week earlier, WVU students, drinking to the death of Osama Bin Laden, set 22 more dumpsters and sofas on fire.  By the end of 2011, Morgantown was the site of more than 200 street fires. Drunken fire setting, a college tradition.

     After WVU defeated the Clemson Tigers in the Discovery Orange Bowl in January 2012, the streets of Morgantown were once again lit up by dumpster, furniture and loose rubbish fires. A couple months later, over the St. Patrick's Day weekend (a big holiday of booze on campuses across the country), the West Virginia kids really got fired-up. They ignited 35 dumpster and couch fires, then outdid themselves by torching a semi. The police arrested five students for malicious burning. On April 2 of this year, several more Morgantown dumpsters and pieces of overstuffed furniture went up in flames. (I'm sure there was an appropriate occasion for the fire setting, I just don't know what it was.)

     If U.S. News & World Report ever publishes a list of the nation's top ten universities where students are most likely to get busted for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, and criminal fire setting, West Virginia University will be number one. That, of course, will give the young scholars at WVU another excuse to break out the booze, and the $4 a gallon gas.     

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