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Spike in robberies near La Salle University has students worried, administrators scrambling

At least six robberies have happened on the edge of campus since Jan. 1, five more than in the previous two years combined. Students say they are scared to walk even in broad daylight.

La Salle University's College Hall building, seen from the corner of 20th Street and Olney Avenue.
La Salle University's College Hall building, seen from the corner of 20th Street and Olney Avenue.Read moreFile Photograph

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon this month, a recent La Salle University student left his home on the edge of campus and began walking along North Lambert Street. That’s when a man with a knife approached, and took his iPhone, his debit card, and ID.

The incident marked the seventh robbery since Jan. 1 within 500 feet of the campus in the city’s Logan neighborhood. In the previous two years, police had logged only a single robbery in the same radius.

The robberies have prompted a pledge by university administrators to bolster security but also stoked tensions on the Catholic school campus. There have been no injuries but also no arrests in the robberies, five of which involved armed assailants, and nearly all against students.

“There’s always been these incidences since I’ve been at La Salle for the past four years, but this year has gotten increasingly bad,” said Katherine Young, a La Salle senior.

More than 2,200 people signed an online petition declaring that students were “scared to walk in broad daylight around campus.” On Monday evening, 300 filled a town-hall meeting devoted to the topic, and the conversation grew heated.

Students complained about a lagging safety text-alert system, a lack of security for off-campus students, and inadequate shuttle and escort systems.

“We don’t see any security, we feel like we’re left out to dry,” Derek DeFusco, a junior who lives near campus, said in an interview after the meeting. “Students are literally arming themselves.”

University officials say they’re doing what they can — including sending more security alert texts, outfitting campus safety officers in yellow vests for visibility, and collaborating with the Philadelphia Police Department to increase the presence of officers in unmarked cars.

Dawn Soufleris, La Salle’s vice president for student affairs, also said the school has spent a year developing a public-safety plan that includes installing more than 100 cameras and incorporating a GPS tracker into the university’s app that notifies safety contacts if students don’t reach their destinations.

The university already has 54 unarmed public safety officers, some of whom provide student escort and shuttle services, as well as more than two dozen students who staff security booths. Through a grant, La Salle pays for a Philadelphia police officer on campus seven nights a week between 6 p.m. and 2 a.m.

But Soufleris said the school faces limitations in preventing off-campus incidents, which is outside its security force’s jurisdiction.

“That’s difficult for our students to understand the differences in terms of the boundaries,” she said.

Unsolved robberies are a citywide problem and crime in that area isn’t uncommon. From 2012 to 2016, 27 homicides occurred within a half-mile of nearby Olney and Chew Avenues, according to an analysis by Philadelphia Weekly.

Still, the timing isn’t great for La Salle, which enrolls nearly 5,200 undergraduate and graduate students. Like many universities, it has struggled with finances, plunging enrollment, and questions about its long-term viability.

At Monday’s meeting, Soufleris said the security problem wasn’t unique; she said other city schools have experienced an uptick in thefts.

But data on crime near the five major universities in the city — Temple, Penn, St. Joe’s, Drexel, La Salle — indicate that only La Salle has had a spike in robberies so close to campus. And the seven robberies since Jan. 1 are more than occurred near all the other schools combined, data show.

In an email to students late last month, Soufleris and Amanda Guthorn, the assistant vice president for public safety, encouraged them to use campus shuttle and safety escort services, walk in groups, tuck away cell phones, and report crimes.

Some students haven’t been satisfied with the university’s response. “I can talk to somebody about it, but that’s not going to stop me from being robbed when I’m walking back from the library at night,” said sophomore Brianna Santiago.

Others expressed concerns that more security on campus would make some students feel unsafe while failing to address off-campus security.

“We do not want armed police officers roaming through our academic buildings,” junior Brandon Robbins-Cartagena said at the meeting.

In an interview later, he said the school needs to consider a broader effort. “As a person of color … I think we should be advocating for a relationship with the people who live in our neighborhood, and a team effort to combat gun violence and crime,” Robbins-Cartagena said.

Ernest Ransom, police captain of the 35th District, which includes La Salle, echoed that theme, stressing the importance of maintaining relationships with community residents. "We have to work to make the community understand that you are a part of it,” he told students, “not apart from it.”

Soufleris insisted the town hall was just the start of the conversation.

“It’s the La Salle community, but we also believe it’s everybody around that is in the outside community,” she said in an interview a day after the meeting. “It has to be a full effort by everyone, so it’s really just the beginning. We’re just going to stay vigilant and help our students the best we can."