In Wake of Tragedy, Downtown Security Questioned

Among all the positive spirit that comes with autumn at Penn State, there has been a quiet sadness in what is usually a Happy Valley this week. Conor MacMannis’s fatal nine-story fall in last Saturday’s Penn Tower tragedy hit many Penn State students with shock. If the comments on last week’s article and the murmurs around campus are any indication, there’s a question that needs to be answered: What action can be taken to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future?

Sadly, this is not the first time that balconies and windows have played a part in facilitating tragic events in State College. According to State College Police, in the past 10 years, 13 height-related incidents have occurred downtown, which breaks down to more than one tragedy of this nature a year, every year, for the past decade.

Six of those 13 incidents were fatal; seven resulted in injuries of varying degrees of severity. Four of the fatalities were determined to be suicidal, while two were deemed accidental. Five of the six listed injuries were ruled accidental, while only one was found to be suicidal. An investigation is still ongoing for the seventh non-fatal fall.

Just this morning — less than a week removed from the MacMannis incident — police reported that a 19-year-old Penn State student fell from a balcony at Palmerton apartment complex. The student is currently being treated at Geisinger Medical Center for trauma injuries and charges are expected to be filed against two individuals for furnishing alcohol.

Last April, 24-year-old former Penn State student Joshua Zornberg died after falling from the sixth floor window of University Gateway. The Centre County coroner ruled Zornberg’s death as suicidal. Student Paige Raque fell from the fifth floor window of Calder Commons in October 2012 and suffered serious injuries. Raque’s fall was determined to be accidental, and eight students were charged with furnishing alcohol to minors in connection to the near-fatal fall.

All of the aforementioned incidents occurred downtown. You very rarely — if ever — hear about this sort of tragedy occurring on campus. Paul Ruskin, Penn State’s Business Operations Coordinator, shed some light on why fewer accidents of this nature have occurred in residence halls.

“Penn State employees work behind the scenes to foster student safety and prevent accidents,” Ruskin explained. “They create two types of safety nets: a concrete safety net and a social safety net.”

The concrete safety net is comprised of the physical components of residence halls that make them safe for student habitation. The first physical component is the height of the buildings on campus.

“There are many more high-rise buildings downtown than on campus,” Ruskin said. “The majority of buildings on campus are relatively low, excluding East Halls and a few buildings in the Pollock area. Our quote-unquote “classic” buildings, such as West Halls and South Halls and most of the rest of campus, generally do not exceed four stories.”

Beyond the much lower height of most residence halls in comparison to apartment buildings downtown, Ruskin acknowledged a few notable structural differences to the buildings.

“As a safety precaution, very few of the residence halls on campus have balconies, and where they do, the OPP and Housing staff make sure to use locking systems or physical blockades to prevent any access to dangerous areas. They either can’t actually get to the balcony, or if they can, that balcony is caged in,” Ruskin said. “Windows are designed for safety. Their screens are unremovable and sturdy, and although we allow windows to be opened for ventilation, the openings are restricted and rarely exceed six inches.”

In other words, fewer of these instances occur on campus because the structure of the dorm buildings doesn’t allow them to happen. If you can’t get to a balcony or your body can’t fit through your window’s restricted opening, then you aren’t able to accidentally or intentionally fall and harm yourself. Even if you were able to somehow circumnavigate this safety system, it’s unlikely that you’d be falling nearly as far on campus as you might off campus simply based on the height of the residence halls.

Ruskin spoke to the possibility of students finding a way to beat their physical safety net. “Maintenance employees are constantly on campus, and they are vigilant,” Ruskin said. “If we see evidence of broken locks or window screens, those security issues will be repaired quickly.”

Associated Realty Property Management, the owners of Penn Tower, declined to comment on whether they intend to implement any of these sort of physical security measures in their building after Saturday’s incident.

Even so, Ruskin explained that he finds the structure of the building to be less important than social support from friends and others.

“As good as you can make a concrete safety net, believe it or not, it is not going to be as strong as a social safety net,” Ruskin said. “Housing provides a trained resident assistant in each residence hall. That RA is able to offer guidance and keep an eye on students to ensure their safety and well-being.”

Despite the success of Penn State’s on campus building structure, it doesn’t appear as though railings will be getting higher or balconies will be getting caged in any time soon at downtown complexes.

“Falls or jumps from balconies are very rare,” said State College Chief of Police, Tom King. “Over the years we have had a number of incidents, some intentional. If they’re not intentional, most are drug or alcohol induced. In other words, if someone does not intend to jump from a balcony and they are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they are very likely going to be safe on that balcony.”

According to the most recent Centre Region Building Safety & Property Maintenance Code, section 307 part 1.2, guardrails shall not be less than 36 inches high above the floor of any balcony. Three feet is the predetermined minimum height requirement for any given balcony railing downtown, and King does not imagine that requirement will be changing anytime soon.

“I don’t anticipate any great changes,” King said. “I think that whatever [landlords] do, they know that they aren’t ever going to be able to eliminate every possible risk. I think if there was some frequency with which this was happening, some real obvious failure of some kind of building design, they would clearly do something. They have to look at it from a practical and business sense.”

In this case, and in most cases where students are not jumping from their balconies intentionally, King believes that it is more of a drug and alcohol safety issue than a balcony or window issue.

“Any time that you have a tragedy like this, it gets a lot of attention and it’s extremely sad,” King said. “But we have to try and look at it and think, ‘Okay, the extent of the problem — is it the balcony that caused this incident, or is it some other causation that really resulted in this?’ Any time that there’s a new design in buildings downtown, we look at that to see, ‘Okay, how can we make this as safe as possible?’ But you cannot eliminate all risk and make it totally safe without putting students in a bubble. It’s up to people not to be drunk, not to be high on LSD, and not to be doing things that are dangerous. We can only do so much from a government standpoint, and the people constructing the buildings can only do so much.”

But if the issue isn’t in the physical structure of the buildings, then what other steps can be taken to decrease the likelihood of future incidents of this nature?

“A big part of it from my standpoint is making the public aware of what dangers are out there. If someone thinks that drug use or heavy alcohol consumption is pretty innocent or harmless, then they are mistaken,” King said. “With these incidents, it’s either mental crises, or people getting extremely drunk, or people using dangerous drugs, and that’s where we need to put our emphasis.”

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About the Author

Alicia Thomas

Alicia is a senior with majors in Print Journalism and Spanish and a minor in International Studies. Chances are that she's somewhere talking about her semester abroad or ranting about sexual assault prevention right now. She can be reached via Twitter (@aliciarthomas) or email ([email protected]).

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