Though the Nest has not always been a popular late-night weekend hotspot, last semester saw extraordinarily high attendance, leading to a volatile situation that recently resulted in its temporary closing.
Rumors abound on campus about the events of Saturday, Feb. 5, but certainty has been hard to find.
Since its inception in 2007, the Nest’s function has been to provide substance-free events in Daugherty-Palmer Commons (DPC).
However, in the past attendance at the events has been fairly low. According to Clint Neill, Coordinator of Student Activities and Judicial Affairs, “Typically in past years the Nest hasn’t been so heavily attended. Usually people come and go… to other events on the Greens, but we’ve been noticing that students are staying.”
In December, there were slightly less than 300 people who would attend throughout the night, Neill said, but even that is large for a small venue like DPC.
In anticipation of large crowds, senior Mica Artis, Programs Board Nest Chair, had asked Neill and Coordinator of Orientation and Service Sola Ogundele, ‘10, to help staff the event due to a lack of student volunteers.
Senior Jessica Harvey, Director of Campus Programming, was also on the volunteer staff.
On the night of Saturday, Feb. 5 attendance almost immediately became an issue, Artis said. In the past, students did not usually arrive until 11:00 and would come and go frequently; in this case, there was a steady stream of attendants beginning at 10:30, with few of them choosing to leave.
By 11:30, at least 400 students had arrived or were waiting to get in, many of whom were “highly intoxicated,” according to Neill.
Artis explained that the dance floor had reached capacity, with many students standing in the lobby instead.
Student volunteers, in addition to Neill and Ogundele, were frantically trying to check IDs, manage the number of allowed guests, and restrict the backpacks and purses that students were attempting to bring.
Artis explained that, due to the difficulties in attracting members for the Nest Committee, there were only nine people staffing the event, including Ogundele, Neill, Harvey, and herself.
Eventually after a consultation with Public Safety, Neill and the rest of the staff attempted to further regulate entry to DPC, since there are multiple side entrances, by creating a line at the front door.
The situation continued to escalate, with many disruptive students pushing and hassling the volunteers and staff members, and with some becoming confrontational, according to Artis; Harvey said that a student had his t-shirt sleeve ripped off in the commotion outside.
“It was out of control,” said Artis, explaining that one of the volunteers was sexually harassed and many others were verbally assaulted. “None of [the volunteers] had to be there; they were helping me out.”
“People were up in our faces screaming, ‘Let us in! Let us in!’” Harvey said.
Inside the building, students were attempting to open the side doors to allow others to enter, and some students in line outside attempted to push through the front doors.
Harvey explained that though the side doors were an issue, they are unable to block them because that would pose a fire hazard.
Neill also saw beer cans inside and witnessed students try to bring in open containers into the intentionally alcohol-free event.
Though the event was advertised as alcohol-free, as all student-run events are, Neill encountered many students who were “highly intoxicated” attempting to gain entrance.
Neill was eventually approached by the student volunteers about concerns for their comfort and safety. “I, as a staff member, could not have a safe event … When my students tell me that they do not feel safe then I take that seriously. The students came to me and said, ‘We can’t handle this.’ I said, ‘Shut it down.’”
After making the call at midnight to close the Nest down, it took thirty minutes to evacuate the more than 470 attendees from the building.
According to Neill, when Public Safety came to assist, students booed. “That really disappointed me,” Neill said.
He also said that he and the volunteers were “flipped off” by drunk, angry students, “because we were asking them to leave.”
While cleaning up after everyone had left, staff saw many empty beer cans and heard students who had brought coats, clutches, or purses searching for presumably stolen items.
“We need to reassess how we do the Nest so these kinds of things don’t happen,” Neill said, while Harvey mentioned that there’s a possibility of instituting a coat check to eliminate the risk.
Additionally, Harvey said that many of the paintings that hang in DPC were taken down. Though they weren’t damaged, “that’s a huge issue,” Harvey said. “We can’t vandalize these buildings and get away with it.”
An important component of the safety of the Nest is the staffing of the security.
The staff is comprised entirely of student volunteers, and not many students feel compelled to assist with safety.
In the past, when attendance was relatively low, security and staffing was less of an issue. However, with increased crowds, security poses more of a concern.
Artis explained that for an event of that size in the future, she would need at least 20 volunteers.
Such a number is difficult to reach considering there are only three members on the Nest Committee, including Artis.
Harvey, who was the Nest Chair last year, explained that typically there are eight or so students who volunteer to staff the events.
According to Harvey, Artis had a meeting with Safe House, and the town house RAs to devise methods for attracting more student leaders to staff the events.
Harvey also said they’re considering instituting a way to identify staff from the people attending the event.
All Student Government Association (SGA) sponsored events are staffed by students, including the coffeehouses, comedians, lectures, and films.
Only larger events, such as World Carnival (which also has the added concern of being outside), are staffed by adults.
Following the event, Assistant Dean of Students Kelly Schroeder and members of the SGA Executive Board decided to suspend all SGA-sponsored dance events for the semester, according to Artis and Neill.
This led to the cancellation of two events hosted by the St. Mary’s Triangle and Rainbow Society and the Black Student Union, arousing negative feedback, according to Artis.
“I had angry people blaming the Nest for all of this, but I did not even know about the suspension until after it had been decided,” she said.
However, she added that the decision was for the best: “The SGA didn’t want to be hosting parties without knowing how to control them and knowing how to prevent what happened at the Nest,” she said, adding that many of the rumors concerning the role the Nest had in the cancellations of other events could have been easily dispelled had anyone bothered to ask.
“All they had to do was ask, but they just got angry instead,” citing many interactions on Facebook having a role in perpetuating misinformation.
Both Neill and Artis were quick to explain that, to their knowledge, the Nest and other SGA sponsored dance events have been temporarily, not permanently, suspended.
Artis is still planning next month’s Nest with hopes that the SGA and Student Activities will have implemented a policy on dance events by that time.
Neill explained that such a policy would likely address the required staffing for having fun events while maintaining security.
On Wednesday, Neill will meet with Assistant Dean of Students Kelly Schroeder, Director of Campus Programming senior Jessica Harvey, and Director of Public Safety Christopher Santiago.
At the meeting, Neill hopes to discuss ways to improve the security at the Nest. “We’re going to look at what other schools are doing,” Neill said, “we’re going to get the feedback from SGA, and then we’re going to say ‘What is best for our students and our culture here at St. Mary’s?’” They’re also looking for student input on the situation.
While looking at other schools’ policies, Neill has noticed that though they usually address alcohol, the general security issues, including staff numbers and training, are relevant.
Extra security, in the form of Public Safety, is an option; however, Neill wants the events to remain approachable to students.
Harvey also thinks having Public Safety staff the event might be intimidating, even to students who “have nothing to hide.”
Additionally, she’s not sure that Public Safety has the officers to spare for the Nest. “They don’t have the time or ability to stay here and babysit a program for students the entire time,” she said.
Another possibility is moving the location of the Nest to a larger, more accommodating space, preferably one that is further away from North Campus.
Suggested venues include the Upper Deck and the Michael P. O’Brien Athletics and Recreation Center.
Artis said that the Nest for next month is being planned for the Upper Deck, though she is not sure how many students that would accommodate.
Even so, “there needs to be more large venues on campus,” said Artis.
Though she did not know DPC’s standing room capacity, she said that the building was not built to be used as a venue for large student events.
She also pointed out that events being over-capacity is not uncommon, citing the popularity of I <3 Female Orgasm, hosted by Feminists United for Sexual Equality last fall.
Harvey believes that the location of the Nest will be contingent upon the motivation of the attendees. If students legitimately want to go to the Nest, she explains, than a larger venue is a feasible option.
However, if students are attending because “there’s nothing else to do and they’re already intoxicated, then we may try moving it away from the residential areas and putting it in the Upper Deck,”
Harvey said. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way of efficiently determining which is the case, and for now Harvey believes they’ll have to rely on trial and error.
On Tuesday, Feb. 15, Harvey is going to present a resolution to the SGA which will remind students of the purpose of the Nest; she hopes to be able to send out an informative all-student email reiterating the Nest’s intentions.
Ultimately, Neill said the goal is to provide an “alcohol-free, alternative venue for students who don’t want to go to the club scene.”
The Nest will continue at some point, he assured. “We just need to figure out how to have it where the true purpose can continue.”