The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 12, 2012

UPJ campus cautious after recent flare in violent crime

Justin Dennis
jdennis@tribdem.com

JOHNSTOWN — It’s been an unsettling finals week on the Pitt-Johnstown campus. This year, it has little to do with the exams.

After the shooting injury of a 22-year-old student in an off-campus apartment break-in on Sunday, a construction worker’s fatal fall on Monday and an attempted robbery outside the Whalley Memorial Chapel on Tuesday, heightened caution and awareness – and heightened security  – is the end-year mantra.

Sunday’s shooting and the September shooting at the nearby Richland Municipal Building occurred off-campus, but were within a half-mile of the university.

Tuesday’s mugging attempt occurred in the Whalley Memorial Chapel parking lot, a highly trafficked route for commuter students. While its proximity has some students concerned, most took matters in stride.

“As long as I’ve been here, nothing like this has ever happened within a (week’s time),” said junior Justin Arble.

“It just seems like a fluke, honestly,” said freshman William McKibbin.

McKibbin said he feels this recent rash of violent crime has been “overhyped.”

“If you look at the safety statistics, we are generally a very safe campus – these two incidents aside,” said Pitt-Johnstown spokesman Bob Knipple.

“Our campus police are (on duty) 24 hours a day, but we have an increased presence right now,” he said.

Campus police described Tuesday’s attempted robber as a 5-foot-7 male, weighing approximately 170 pounds. He was dressed in a black hoodie with orange shoes and was missing several teeth. Knipple said several cruisers were stationed at campus entrances through Tuesday night after the robbery attempt and officers were checking IDs. No vehicle could park on campus without passing a checkpoint.

The vibe is tense, to say the least.

“This is definitely, by far, the strangest week here,” said fourth-year student Benjamin Sakmar.

After learning about the September shooting on the evening news, Sakmar said he’s lost faith in the university’s ability to communicate security issues to its students.

“I just think we should be warned as the situation’s happening, not hours after the fact,” he said.

According to Knipple, all warnings are issued via the Emergency Notification System, a subscription service. They reach students as text messages, emails and voicemails. ENS also alerts students about utility outages and weather conditions.

“During orientation, we emphasize the importance of subscribing to that service,” said Knipple.

But an ENS alert didn’t go out on the day of the municipal building shooting, and most students said they learned about the incident from the media.

“We did not issue that (alert) because one of our officers was first on scene,” said Knipple. “We knew the situation was over as soon as it started.”

On Tuesday night, however, Knipple said the ENS alert went out within seven minutes of the incident report, even though it wasn’t reported until 20 minutes after it happened.

“They were very quick to respond,” said Sakmar, who said he’d received the notification within an hour. “They did a very good job with that.”

The ENS alert is what kept freshman Ashlei Ghroshong indoors on Tuesday night. Instead of trekking across campus to her dorm, she crashed in a friend’s room.

“I thought (the campus) seemed pretty safe with all the emergency buttons around,” she said, adding that she’s not too worried since only one of the incidents actually happened on campus.

This cautious behavior is what campus police want to encourage as they urge students to travel in groups, be aware of their surroundings and even more wary when walking at night.

Some campus officers have even disseminated their cell numbers to the student body, putting a direct line to safety in the students’ pockets.

“Our campus police, I think, really do a good job interacting with the students and helping them feel safe,” said Knipple. “They have a good rapport with them and that’s important.”