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Keeping students safe on Penn's campus

The complaint came in to the University of Pennsylvania police headquarters about 12:40 a.m. on a Saturday: Loud music at an off-campus house.

Maureen S. Rush, University of Pennsylvania vice president for public safety, has led the campus police force for 20 years.
Maureen S. Rush, University of Pennsylvania vice president for public safety, has led the campus police force for 20 years.Read moreANDREW THAYER / Staff

The complaint came in to the University of Pennsylvania police headquarters about 12:40 a.m. on a Saturday:

Loud music at an off-campus house.

Seconds later, Maureen S. Rush, Penn vice president for public safety, pulled up in front of the building on Pine Street in her unmarked hybrid Ford Explorer.

A couple sat on the front porch, making out.

The music didn't seem that loud to Rush. But someone was bothered, and Penn wishes to keep peace with its West Philadelphia neighbors.

By now, Michael Ricciardi, one of Rush's police sergeants, had arrived and gone into the house to investigate. Dozens of students streamed out.

Ricciardi bargained with the hosts: Lower the music and the party didn't have to stop. But a student who lived there was ready to call it a night.

"Do me a favor," the male student said. "Can you kick everyone out?"

That was the extent of the drama on a weekend night when the department let a reporter observe the university's crackdown on drinking - which had been veering out of hand this semester, a period during which Playboy magazine voted the Ivy League university the nation's top party school.

"When we saw the behavior was starting to go in a direction that could be dangerous for the students, we had to do a very quick correction and bring the needle back in the middle," said Rush, a former Philadelphia police officer who has led the Penn police for 20 years. "And you're seeing tonight the needle is back in the middle."

The department in mid-October announced the push, in which administrators from athletics, student life, and the office of fraternities and sororities would begin accompanying Penn police to get a firsthand look at the party scene so they could better be a part of the solution.

Eric Furda, dean of admissions, and M. Grace Calhoun, the new athletic director, are among those who have taken the ride-along.

The announcement of the task force followed a spike in alcohol-related cases in which students had to be taken to the hospital and instances of off-campus violence, including an altercation between a football player and a lacrosse player that resulted in charges of simple assault.

Rush said the task force was not trying to arrest or cite more students.

"Our intent is to make sure kids drink responsibly, and, more important, that they take care of each other," Rush said.

Students appreciate the approach.

"Any program that's trying to ensure students' safety is well-received by the students," said Jacob Henner, 20, a junior from Long Island and a volunteer EMT for Penn. "They know the school is trying to look out for them."

Since the effort began, the number of students transported to the hospital for alcohol problems has dropped, Rush said. There were 48 cases from Oct. 16 through Nov. 20, compared with 60 for that same period last year.

On Friday night and Saturday morning the weekend before last, three students were transported, police said. The department also dealt with DUI and disorderly conduct cases not involving Penn students.

Rush's 116-officer department patrols 21/2 square miles bordered by 30th Street, 43d Street, Market Street, and Baltimore Avenue. The officers are assisted from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. by security officers. In addition, employees in the department's communications center at 4040 Chestnut St. monitor cameras that cover about 90 percent of the patrol area.

Thefts of unattended items, particularly of bikes, is the most prevalent campus crime, Rush said. Public urination is among the more frequent alcohol citations.

On the shift last weekend, Penn police fielded the following sorts of calls:

A bicyclist ran a red light at 38th and Spruce and nearly hit a pedestrian. Police nabbed him.

A woman couldn't reach her daughter. Officers headed to the student's dorm to find her. "We're full-service here," Rush said.

A young woman was walking alone, carrying what appeared to be food. She seemed to wobble. Rush pulled up alongside her: "Honey, are you OK? Penn police."

The young woman replied, "My house is right there," and she turned to walk in.

It's not the first year Penn has shined a light on alcohol issues. Amy Gutmann, the university's president, created a commission nearly two years ago to review campus use of alcohol and drugs.

Universities nationally struggle with binge drinking. But Penn's party scene continues to get attention. Rush found Playboy's top-party school designation "odd."

"There are universities and colleges across the country that are far more deserving of that honor," she said.

On this night, fraternity row was as quiet as a library. So were off-campus houses known as the "beige block."

"There are a lot of off-campus houses that we never [have to] go into," Rush said.

When police do knock, it goes smoothly, she said, citing a brokered trust between police and students.

"We don't want students to be afraid," she said. "We are their police department. We want to make sure they are safe."

Penn has a medical amnesty policy, meaning students who call for help for themselves or others for drug or alcohol use won't get into trouble.

The university in 2006 started the Medical Emergency Response Team, made up of student EMTs - many of them premed majors - who travel around on bikes.

About 50 percent of their calls are for drug or alcohol intoxication, said senior Laura Di Taranti, 21, of Wayne, N.J. But they have also dealt with car crashes, bike accidents, and other traumas.

Students, she said, feel more comfortable dealing with peers.

"In scary situations," she said, "it's nice to have something that makes it a little less scary."

Di Taranti's crew had no calls as of midnight.

"It's been quiet," Rush said.

Di Taranti looked at Rush as though she had just opened Pandora's box: "You said the 'Q' word."

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