Some Philly university students give crime reports low grades

Posted: September 03, 2014

IN JANUARY 2011, a University of Pennsylvania student was assaulted about three blocks from campus, allegedly by a "flash mob" of up to 40 youths. Penn did not issue an alert to students about the incident.

On Easter weekend last year, a 20-year-old La Salle University student was abducted about a mile from campus and sexually assaulted. La Salle officials did not send out an alert.

Five months ago, a 19-year-old Temple University student was walking with her boyfriend a block from campus when a group of teens approached, one of whom beat her face with a brick. Within a half-hour, the same group attacked two other students nearby. Temple waited three days before issuing a statement about the incidents.

When it comes to reporting crimes involving students, federal guidelines are subject to interpretation. As a result, in each of these cases, three major Philadelphia universities were left to make a judgment call about whether an off-campus crime constituted a "continuing threat."

At a time when increasing numbers of students live off-campus, these examples highlight a growing concern voiced by students at the city's five major four-year institutions:

How can I know where I'm safe?

'The way of life'

Although Temple, Penn and La Salle all complied with the law in these instances, some students say they're frustrated and would prefer that crime alerts be sent out more frequently.

The Temple student in the brick assault - who underwent oral surgery as a result - said an alert should have been sent out sooner.

"I want Temple to be safer because of this," said the woman, whose identity is being withheld by the Daily News for her safety.

"That's just the way of life at city schools," said a 22-year-old Drexel University student who was robbed at gunpoint last September on the edge of campus.

James Kurtz, a Drexel student who was not involved in the gunpoint robbery, said that many students think the crime alerts are inconsistent.

"We kind of wonder why we weren't notified through [the alert] system first, when we hear about it through other channels," said Kurtz, 22, a fourth-year computer-engineering major.

Jim Moore, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Clery Act compliance division - which tries to assure that universities effectively report crimes under the guidelines of the law - said the alerts are meant to prevent a similar crime from happening and to promote awareness.

"A lot of students tell us that they want to know if certain types of crimes have occurred in their living environment so they could be more proactive," he said.

Blurred lines

Under the Clery Act, institutions must send out an alert if authorities perceive an "immediate threat" or a "continuing threat" to students and staff.

The schools don't have to issue an alert if the threat is off-campus, although they are permitted to do so if they think it's needed, federal officials said.

For urban universities, this issue creates blurred lines. At Philadelphia's five major institutions, on-campus housing is available to only 29 percent of enrolled undergrads, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The rest either commute or find off-campus housing.

"Historically [students would live] one or two blocks [off-campus] . . . now it's five or six," said Capt. Joseph Bologna, of West Philly's 19th Police District, which patrols parts of the St. Joseph's University campus.

When a crime happens off-campus, it might not present an immediate or ongoing threat to those within campus borders, but it's still a threat to those who live slightly outside them.

"At some point, you are asking schools to know about incidents that are not a part of their jurisdiction," said Moore. "That's why we draw the line."

University statements concerning the La Salle student's Easter abduction and the Temple student's brick attack were sent out by the universities after news organizations reported the stories.

La Salle officials said they decided not to send an alert because the incident was not an ongoing threat.

Temple's email to the student body three days after the brick incident said an alert wasn't issued because, "Temple was not made aware of the attacks until several hours after the events took place." The email also said that alerts are sent only in the event of an "immediate or imminent threat."

All five Philly universities work with the Philadelphia Police Department. In the brick attack, Charles Leone, executive director of Temple's Campus Safety Services, said an alert wasn't issued sooner because of a delay in communication between police and his organization.

In hindsight, Leone said, he would have liked to send an alert to the student body had the communication delays not occurred.

Each university has upper-level administrators who decide if an incident constitutes an emergency worthy of an alert.

For example, at La Salle, three administrators are responsible for making a judgment that affects the safety of a student body that numbered about 5,000 undergrads and 3,000 graduate students in 2012-13.

Alerts are issued when three upper-level officials decide that the case poses a threat, the report says.

Alison Kiss, executive director of the Wayne-based nonprofit Clery Center for Security on Campus, said bureaucratic procedures often can hinder the schools' ability to quickly send out alerts after a violent incident.

"A chain of approvals is not optimal," she said in an email.

Moore, the federal Clery Act official, said that schools occasionally have failed to issue timely alerts because one person in the chain was not available.

"If you have to go through a whole process with various people to get clearance, then time is wasted getting approvals," he said.

Dragged by her hair

No alert was sent out after an 18-year-old Temple freshman was dragged by her hair and beaten by a group of about 10 girls outside an off-campus house party last October. Her cellphone was stolen and she was hospitalized.

"We look at the situation and we see what the impact is," said Temple's Leone, regarding alerts.

After Temple's brick incident, students voiced outrage over the university's communication delay. More than 2,000 people signed an online petition titled "Expand Temple University's Patrol Area/Jurisdiction," aimed to "help us regain the essential sense that we are safe attending Temple University."

In 2011, Penn's Undergraduate Assembly cited several instances in which the alert system caused controversy, including the "flash mob" incident. The assembly passed a resolution urging the university to recognize the value of the alerts.

"[The UA] strongly urges the Crisis Management Team to recognize that the dissemination of more information, and especially the dissemination of more information as swiftly as possible, is the more useful option for undergraduate students," the resolution said.

By contrast, John Gallagher, director of public safety and security at St. Joe's, sent out an alert for an armed robbery at an off-campus Rite-Aid, believing that even though it didn't involve a student, knowledge of the crime was vital to students' safety.

"We know a lot of people in the St. Joe's community will use that store," he said.

Some students said they wished they'd be notified more quickly of crimes against students off-campus, even if only via Twitter.

"I do think it's important to be notified and aware of where we are and what's going on," said Sierra van den Dries, 23, a graduate student at Penn. "I feel like I am really in the dark about stuff like that."

"I think once you have lived here, it's just kind of something that you get used to," said Taylor Collins, student-body president at Drexel. "It's not alarming when you get the alert, and I think that attitude that most students have is, 'It's not going to happen to me.' But I think the more lightly people take it, the more vulnerable they are to the situation."

"Campus is safe, I feel safe on campus," said the Temple student who was attacked and robbed of her cellphone. "But students don't realize that four or five blocks in another direction, it's not safe at all."


@PatriciaMadej

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