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At WWU, few safety changes made a year after freshman's death

Incoming freshmen Ian McLees, center, reaches for his bags as his father watches helpers pick up McLees' possessions and move them into his room at Buchanan Towers at Western Washington University on Saturday Sep. 17, 2011 in Bellingham. Helping move McLees in are Brian Beaudry, right, and Gary Liojebeck.
Incoming freshmen Ian McLees, center, reaches for his bags as his father watches helpers pick up McLees' possessions and move them into his room at Buchanan Towers at Western Washington University on Saturday Sep. 17, 2011 in Bellingham. Helping move McLees in are Brian Beaudry, right, and Gary Liojebeck. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - Thousands of Western Washington University students are moving into dorms, apartments and shared houses this weekend, then heading out to parties and downtown bars to celebrate.

A year ago, the back-to-school frenzy was much the same, until freshman Dwight Clark disappeared. The 18-year-old who earned straight A's in high school had been attending the university for less than a week when he left a party alone, drunk and possibly high on marijuana.

Ten days later, after a massive search involving hundreds of people from the university and the community, Clark's body was discovered floating near a log boom in Bellingham Bay.

What compelled him to go down to the water that night remains as much a mystery today as it was then, said University Police Chief Randy Stegmeier.

Whether the incoming freshmen and other new students will hear the story of Clark and be reminded of the dangers of drinking also is unclear. A year after a death that gripped the community, the university has made few changes to address student drinking and safety.

Stegmeier points out the university issues letters to students and parents about personal safety. But in Clark's case, he said, there's not much that could have been done differently.

"We don't really have any new initiatives," Stegmeier said of this school year. "The only new initiative that we're working on this fall is regarding bicycle and skateboard safety."

When Clark's body was discovered in the bay, his wallet and cell phone were still in his pockets, and there were no signs of trauma on his body. His death was ruled an accident.

The county medical examiner released a toxicology report weeks later: At the time of his death, Clark had a 0.13 blood alcohol content and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in his bloodstream.

Well before that information became available, Stegmeier issued a strongly worded letter to students about alcohol enforcement.

"For those who need a stronger reminder, we want to remove all doubt," the letter said. Then, in all capital letters: "THE BELLINGHAM POLICE AND UNIVERSITY POLICE WILL BE OUT IN THE COMMUNITY ENFORCING ALCOHOL AND DRUG LAWS."

That letter was released right after another alcohol-related controversy near Central Washington University, where four students were sickened by the alcoholic energy drink Four Loko. Criticism of the incident culminated with the temporary ban of the drink in Washington state.

In the aftermath of that one-two punch of controversy, and citing myriad complaints from the community, WWU President Bruce Shepard decided to provide university money to Bellingham Police to help fund a series of party emphasis patrols.

He explained the decision last October in a blog post partially titled "The Western I know is not about binge drinking and getting plastered."

During the emphasis patrols, Bellingham and University police cruise through the city in their Mobile Booking Unit, better known to students as the "party bus," responding to noise complaints at homes where they suspect minors are drinking alcohol.

After obtaining a search warrant, they'll go inside the house and often make arrests of anywhere from 20 to 70 underage drinkers. The bus is used to process the high volume of arrests, and also to create an imposing presence.

About 200 minors were cited, arrested and released last school year during three weekends of party patrols.

For the coming school year, WWU's Office of the President again approved funding for the patrols.

In part as a response to the Virginia Tech shootings four years ago, the university also has been working to keep students informed in the event of an emergency, through text message and email updates, postings on the university website and a new fire alarm system that makes it possible to give specific verbal messages to any academic building on campus.

That new system was installed earlier this year; funding for it was approved several months before Clark went missing.

Dan Everson, who graduated from WWU this summer with a degree in computer science, recalled a strong-arm robbery that happened a few months after the Dwight Clark incident, when the university alerted Western's 15,000 or so students almost immediately after gunfire was heard a block south of campus.

"They definitely made a more concerted effort to text people and contact us after (Clark's death)," Everson said.

The police chief also sends out a letter to parents of incoming freshman, but few Western students on campus last week could remember hearing about that letter.

"I'm sure we got handed a lot of papers that first week," Everson said, "and we probably read about half of them."

Other safety measures seem to have more visibility among students: The Associated Students' shuttle bus has doubled its annual ridership to about 46,000 since 2007, said Carol Berry, program manager of Sustainable Transportation at WWU.

The late-night shuttle has been around, in some form or another, since the mid-'90s. It keeps students safer and, if they're intoxicated, away from the wheel, Berry said.

But when it comes down to it, there's only so much the university can do to protect its students, whether that's through education or enforcement, said university spokesman Paul Cocke.

"We're not babysitters," he said. "We're not."


CLARK MEMORIAL GOLF INVITATIONAL

This year's Outhouse Golf Invitational, in Auburn, will raise funds to build part a skateboarding plaza in honor of Dwight Clark, the Western Washington University freshman who drowned last year in Bellingham Bay.

The invitational begins at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, at Auburn Golf Course.

Cost is $60 per player and includes golf cart rental, a T-shirt and prizes. To RSVP, contact Bryan Pierce at piercebryan@yahoo.com.

Proceeds go to the Dwight Clark fund. The group is hoping to build a skate plaza in Clark's hometown of Auburn because of his love of skateboarding. Donations to the fund also can be made through Chase Bank.

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