Campus assault rattles students


Kristian Biega, News Editor

The Mercyhurst community was shaken as an assault was reported Feb. 10 at 11 p.m. near the Audrey Hirt Academic Center.

A safety notice was sent out via Omnilert’s e2campus alert system around 1 a.m. to inform the university community about the incident.

The assault was reported by the victim that night to Mercyhurst Police and Safety and was followed by an immediate response by campus police and Residence Life.

The biggest concerns for campus police upon arrival at the scene are always the same: to secure the scene, get the victim medical attention if needed, take the victim to safety and preserve any evidence from the scene.

“We are the first responders,” Mercyhurst’s Chief of Police, DJ Fuhrmann, said. “Our biggest concern is to be sure that the student, staff member, community member or whoever it may be, is safe.”

The alert was sent via text message to all students and faculty who have signed into the e2campus alerts system on the student portal. A follow-up email was sent by the university to outline the situation and make everyone aware of the events. The email stated:

“A female was approached from behind by an unknown male. The male placed his hand over her face and grabbed victims body causing scratching on her shoulder and stomach area before fleeing the area on foot. No further description of the male is available at this time.”

This statement is all the information that is known about the assault and that will be made public for the safety and respect of the victim. Since an assault is considered a crime more serious than a misdemeanor, the Erie Police Department was called to Mercyhurst, as per protocol. Erie police are currently conducting an investigation.

“We are in contact with the Erie PD and have provided them with all the information and video we have,” Fuhrmann said. “They are investigating and will let us know from there.”

Fuhrmann wants students to know that the alert text was not sent to alarm or scare people on campus, but to make sure those of the community are on higher alert and awareness of their surroundings, especially at night.

“The alert is simply to make the community aware that a crime has occurred and if we determine it to be a continuing threat to the community, to make them aware where it happened and when it happened,” Fuhrmann said.

Some students were concerned that the e2campus text was not sent out immediately, but Laura Zirkle, Ph. D, vice president of Student Life, confirms that the alert was sent out in a timely manner to be sure to report accurate information about the assault and take the correct protocols. There was also an issue with the follow-up email not reaching all students, but the issue has since been resolved with the IT department.

“If we thought it was an immediate threat, we would act immediately,” Zirkle said. “In this case it was not like we could have put out a notice without gathering some facts. It doesn’t help anybody if we are putting out bad information. We take a few minutes and try and put that information together and then send it out.”

There are many safety precautions already in place on campus from Res Life and campus police, such as more than 100 fully functioning cameras on campus. These cameras are monitored 24/7 in the Campus Police Station. Campus Safety is also doing a light audit to ensure proper lighting in well-trafficked areas.

Fuhrmann gave several tips for students to increase their safety on campus. He encourages students to be familiar with campus and the route they use to get home, especially at night. Walk in well-lit and populated areas, but make sure to take a path you know well.

However, if there is ever a time when one does not feel safe, Police and Safety will provide an escort or a phone call until you have reached a safe place.

Fuhrmann suggests texting roommates or friends when leaving to walk home with an ETA rather than talking on the phone with headphones in so as to increase reaction time and awareness of one’s surroundings.

“We are all responsible for our own safety,” Fuhrmann said. “If it doesn’t feel right to you or you don’t feel safe, listen to your instinct. Your instincts are usually pretty good about protecting you. Make the call. That is what we are here for.”

Residence assistants, hall directors and Police and Safety regularly patrol campus in case of any unwanted activity.

RAs and hall directors are on call each night and make rounds inside and outside between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. They walk in numbers for safety as well and check to make sure that all maintenance is up to date and working properly.

Megan McKenna, director of Residence Life and Student Conduct, stated that RAs may stop and talk to students, not as an attempt to catch them doing anything wrong, but to make sure everything is OK.

“Our best defense is making sure the students are aware of their surroundings,” McKenna said.

Mercyhurst being a small and homelike campus, students may not be as proactive in awareness and defense for incidents like this. While it is a good thing that students feel comfortable on campus, McKenna urges everyone to take extra precautions.

“Our safe campus is something that we take for granted,” McKenna said. “The hard part is that students feel at home here, which is what we want, however things can happen. The biggest part of it is that we act quickly.”

As each of these representatives from student life and safety have stated, the most important aspect of student safety is being aware of one’s own surroundings at all times.

“These precautions are not about blaming anybody for their actions — you should be able to walk across this campus at night and not think twice about anybody ever approaching you. But the truth is that it’s always better to be a little more safe and err on the side of caution. I would always recommend taking those steps,” Zirkle said.

The university is creating more opportunities for education and awareness over the course of the semester as well.

Both Zirkle and McKenna highly encourage students to give their suggestions — such as adding additional lights or hosting engaging activities for the student body — to the Student Life department.

“Talk to your RA about ideas or concerns you have. We are more than open to suggestions if it will bring students out and about to these events for sure,” McKenna said.

The e2campus alerts will be utilized more now that it is more accessible for students.

“You’ll see a lot more of these timely notices as we are more able to have everybody aware of what’s going on both on and around campus,” Zirkle said.

There will be a safety forum on Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. in the Student Union following a self-defense class featuring the Munio self-defense key chain from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

This is a time for students to voice their concerns and questions about safety moving forward. Students are encouraged to increase dialogue about safety issues on campus.