October 20, 2021

Probe continues into party with maskless SUNY students

‘We’ll get to the bottom of it’

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Cortland police raided this house at 70 Tompkins St. Feb. 13 to find more than 75 people, many of them students, partying without masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The four hosts, all SUNY Cortland students, have been charged.

Cortland and SUNY Cortland police continue to investigate a party in which more than 75 people, hosted by four college students, clustered without masks, even as a city resident called for college President Erik Bitterbaum to be fired.

Bitterbaum, who has no plan to step down over the incident Saturday, said the college continues to investigate and will punish students, up to and including suspension or expulsion.

“We’ll get to the bottom of it,” he said Wednesday.

City police responded to the party at 70 Tompkins St. about 12:15 a.m. Saturday, after complaints of noise and large gatherings for weeks, Deputy Chief Paul Sandy said in a news release.

As officers approached, they could hear loud music and screaming from within the house.

When a female left the house, officers asked her to escort them in, which she did.

Inside, they found alcohol and an estimated 75 individuals from SUNY Cortland, other colleges and elsewhere, police said. None of the partiers police identified were wearing masks to protect others from COVID-19.

Four students, residents of 70 Tompkins St., have been charged with prohibited noise violations and are scheduled to appear next month in Cortland City Court. Bitterbaum said four students, who were residents of 70 Tompkins St., have been suspended and face expulsion. Their tuition and other fees will not be refunded.

“They really misbehaved and jeopardized the lives of the students and those in the community and we’re going to seek the harshest penalty for their misbehavior,” he said.

City resident James Knight called at a Common Council meeting Tuesday for Bitterbaum to be removed as president of the college for being negligent in his responsibility in protecting the well-being of the community.

Fred Pierce, the college’s director of communications, said Knight’s frustration on the risk that the students partying posed was valid, but said that placing the blame at Bitterbaum’s feet was not correct.

The college, he noted, has taken a very strong stance on punishing those breaking COVID guideline rules and potentially putting others at risk, including:

  • Two students expelled.
  • 120 students suspended. Students suspended would be allowed eventually to return to SUNY Cortland while expelled students would not.
  • 127 students banned from campus, but still allowed to take courses remotely.
  • 200 students put on probation.

“We disciplined and suspended more students in one semester than we had in the previous several years,” Pierce said. “We have never had anything like that before.”

Common Council members shared their frustration.

“The sternly noted letters from the college are not having the effect they’re intended to have,” said Alderwoman Katy Silliman (D-2nd Ward), adding it shouldn’t be up to neighbors to have to “rat out” the students having parties.

“Making a neighbor rat out a neighbor destroys a neighborhood,” she said.

Sandy said the department has a task force working with SUNY Cortland University Police to crack down on large gatherings.

“We’re taking it very seriously and the college kids should, too,” he said.

Silliman said she was happy to hear about that, but wanted to know if there was more the campus police could do.

Sandy said it may be out of the university police’s jurisdiction but said he would talk with city Corporation Counsel Ric VanDonsel to see if there is more that can be done.

Alderman Bruce Tytler (D-3rd Ward) said Cortland police need help in cracking down on college parties, which, if possible, could come from university police.

Bitterbaum said that the college frequently discusses protocol changes regarding enforcement on off-campus housing, but did not elaborate on details.