TAMPA — Gasparilla is more than just a rowdy street party for the University of Tampa.
It is a surge of booze-fueled trouble that, if unchecked, could flood the riverfront campus with drunken students and outsiders, vandalism and crime.
"It's very, very busy," associate dean of students Gina Firth said. "Everybody's on alert as far as the staff is concerned. I mean, you have to be, because anything can happen."
This year, the parade will come closer than ever, ending at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, just across the Hillsborough River.
So the university has launched an unprecedented set of initiatives to help students stay safe, sober (to the extent possible) and out of jail.
"The last thing I want students to do is go to Gasparilla with the same expectations they had in years past and get arrested," Firth said.
Gasparilla is probably the most high-risk day of the year for UT students, she said, more than Guavaween or St. Patrick's Day. Violations of campus rules run four to five times higher than on a typical weekend.
In the past, Gasparilla has brought alcohol poisoning, fights and sexual assaults.
In one of the worst episodes in recent years, a UT student started drinking at 11:30 a.m. the day of the parade in 2007. As the day went on, she drank beer and downed shots, got separated from her sorority sisters and let a stranger walk her back to her room that evening. Several hours later, campus security responded to her dorm for a call about a sexual assault. No arrest was ever made.
In response, the university tightened access to dorms. It now requires students and visitors to show identification to campus security before going in the halls. "The university wants to make sure we know who's going in and out," associate dean of students Monnie Wertz said.
During a student meeting Tuesday night, security evening shift supervisor Mike Munger recalled the case and held his hands, palms up, in an appeal.
"Let's not have that happen again, okay?" he asked.
Tampa police also talked to students about what more stringent enforcement of the law means for them, as well as what to do to be aware of, avoid, deter and defend against crime.
"You need to make sure that you take on a level of responsibility for your personal safety," Tampa police Chief Jane Castor told more than 100 students.
Throughout the week, the campus also is hosting events aimed at letting students know that this year police will arrest paradegoers for things tolerated in the past. Underaged drinking. Public urination. Carrying open containers of alcohol outside the designated area along the parade route.
On Saturday, residence halls will hold breakfasts, partly to give resident assistants a chance to review safety tips and see whether students have been "pregaming" by drinking in their rooms. University policy bans being intoxicated on campus, so students who have been drinking can be referred to the deans for followup action.
Also Saturday, the university will offer alternative activities — a movie, free pizza, games, even decoupage — as well as information about things going on off-campus for students not interested in Gasparilla.
So, will the tougher law enforcement cause students to change their habits?
"Not much," predicted junior Dana Stewart, 30, of Tampa. "I think they're going to do the same thing they did before."
Senior Charlie Hambos, 21, the editor in chief of the student newspaper, the Minaret, said he senses that some students are just not going to care.
"There are a lot of people working hard to make sure students understand," he said. "But unfortunately, it's up to the student to take it all in, process it and do something with that information."
Graduate student Raine Roberts, 21, thought differently. Before she went to Tuesday night's session with Tampa police, she had heard students talk about not going to Gasparilla because the crackdown seemed so restrictive.
Afterward, she planned to tell her friends they should go.
"I don't think it's as bad as they think it is," she said.
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.