ISU cancels this week's VEISHEA events after riots

Task force could recommend ending event permanently

A pair of broken light poles in downtown Ames after a riot early Wednesday, April 9, 2014 during Iowa State University's annual VEISHEA celebration. (photo by Gavin Aronsen via Twitter/@garonsen)
A pair of broken light poles in downtown Ames after a riot early Wednesday, April 9, 2014 during Iowa State University's annual VEISHEA celebration. (photo by Gavin Aronsen via Twitter/@garonsen)

Iowa State University on Wednesday canceled the rest of this week’s VEISHEA celebration after a riot the previous night seriously injured one student and left another black eye on the historic event.

ISU President Steven Leath announced the cancellation to a room full of reporters and said he’s also creating a task force to look at how — if at all — VEISHEA should continue in the future.

“We cannot have any more property destroyed or incidents of this nature,” Leath said.

VEISHEA, which stands for the first letters of the ISU colleges that existed in 1922 when the event originated, is an annual springtime celebration aimed at showcasing the ISU community through educational and entertainment events.

Despite its origins and family-friendly activities, VEISHEA has a history of “ugly” incidents, Leath said. There were riots in 1988, 1992, 1999 and 2004, a man was stabbed to death on a fraternity house lawn during VEISHEA in 1997, and the event was canceled in 2005.

Leath said that history weighed into the administration’s decision this week to suspend the remaining events and re-evaluate VEISHEA’s future.

“My predecessors have faced similar decisions, and despite everyone’s efforts, we are back here doing the same thing,” he said. The task force that will be convened to review the event will begin meeting promptly, and Leath said he’ll make a decision on the future of VEISHEA by the end of the year.

“We will work quickly on this,” he said. “This will not be a prolonged decision.”

Even if VEISHEA does survive this review, Leath said, the likelihood of it continuing in its current form is “very very small.”

“These issues have to go away,” he said.

Leath expressed extreme sadness and embarrassment about having to cancel a week of events that many hardworking students and community members have been preparing for all year. But, he said, student and community safety must come first.

“And we need to prepare as a community to overcome image that we have created for ourselves from last night,” he said.

Leath expressed condolences to the student injured during the late-night riot, along with his family members and friends. The student, whose name hasn’t been made public, suffered a severe head injury after being hit by a toppled light pole.

He remained in stable condition in intensive care in a Des Moines hospital on Wednesday, according to Leath. And doctors are watching him closely, hopeful he’ll make a full recovery, Leath said.

Authorities are following up on a huge amount of information about who was involved in the overnight riot, and Leath said involved students could face criminal charges and ISU disciplinary action — including expulsion.

Ames police said they have made two arrests associated with the riot, and they’re continuing to look for those involved in the vandalism, including the incident that severely injured the student.

Cmdr. Geoff Huff said it’s too early to tell for certain, but he does not believe the student injured by the light pole was directly involved in bringing it down.

“Based on his position, where he was located when it came down, I don’t think he would have been involved in actually pulling it down,” Huff said. “But anyone in that area should not have been there. That’s pretty clear. And everyone in that area was there by choice.”

Leath said he spent Wednesday meeting with senior staff members and community and student leaders about how to proceed, and no one thought it appropriate to continue with this week’s VEISHEA.

He said he’s been flooded with emails and comments via social media about the riots, which made national news, and many people expressed concern that the events will tarnish the university’s reputation

Leath said he thinks the public will reserve judgment for the school’s response.

“I’m confident our loyal supporters will judge us on how we handle the situation than on what happened last night,” he said. Huff said police first were called to the Campustown area near the ISU campus about 11 p.m. Tuesday for a party on Hunt Street that had grown too large. Officers got that scene under control but soon learned of a group gathered on Welch Avenue, which intersects with Hunt Street, Huff said.

Members of the crowd on Welch Street flipped a car before officers could get them controlled, according to Huff, and a short time later police responded to Stanton Avenue, a block east, where a very large crowd was gathered and another car had been overturned.

That crowd grew even bigger — into a mass several thousands — when everyone from Welch Avenue joined, Huff said. Officers arrested one person involved in flipping the car.

“And that’s when the crowd turned on us,” Huff said. “They started throwing full beer cans and bottles … whatever wasn’t nailed down.”

Some officers and individuals were hit by the flying objects — although Huff said no one was seriously injured at that point.

“They started to advance on us,” he said.

So police pulled back and the crowd followed, making a loop and ending up at the intersection of Chamberlain Street and Welch Avenue, by the clock tower. The crowd started to shake the light poles at that intersection and then two toppled.

Minutes later, police received a 911 call — presumably from someone in the crowd — that a man had been injured by a falling light pole, Huff said. Officers were unable to see anything, Huff said, but they managed to “bully” their way through the crowd to find the injured man.

“It was pretty chaotic,” he said. “I was in the group that went in to get him, and we did have to push people out of the way to find out where he was. It was difficult.”

Once officers extricated the injured man and got him medical attention, Huff said, the crowd grew more cooperative.

“I think reality set in for some people that this was really stupid,” he said. “A lot of people saw that this was bad and really awful.”

Huff estimated the man was injured around 12:30 a.m., and police were able to start dispersing the crowd of about 3,000. The about 18 officers working the scene had the area back under control around 1:30 a.m., Huff said.

“Unfortunately, it took a serious injury for us to bring people back to reality and get them out of there,” Huff said.

Many of the people involved in the riot were student aged and chanting a variety of things, according to Huff. At one point, he said, they were disparaging the University of Iowa Hawkeyes or yelling about VEISHEA.

Officials still are assessing property damage, but Huff said several stop signs, light poles and cars were damaged. Authorities did not resort to crowd control measures — like pepper spray.

“But we were prepared to do that,” he said. “Had things gone on much longer, that was the direction we would have headed.”

Huff said he believes use of social media fueled the riot by letting one large group know where another large group was gathered. On a Facebook page apparently created for images taken through the mobile application Snapchat during VEISHEA, rioters posted pictures of the chaos — including one of a light pole going down with the text, “They’re gonna get the light pole.”

Images also showed police trying to intervene and an overturned car.

Some online commenters Wednesday criticized the behavior.

One person wrote on Facebook, “Way to highlight the worst of the student population. There’s a difference between having fun and being stupid, and this crosses a line and only puts future campus celebrations in jeopardy of being canceled. Grow up.”

Following the announcement that VEISHEA is being canceled this year, students and alumni sounded off about the decision online.

“I am disgusted and ashamed of all the wrong that occurred last night,” one woman wrote on the VEISHEA Facebook page, questioning whether canceling the event will spur more misbehavior. “Canceling the rest of the week’s activities was an extremely risky move, in my opinion.”

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