Indiana Borough council President Nancy Jones said thousands of young people who clogged borough streets Friday and Saturday nights during Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Homecoming celebration exhibited a “mob mentality” that left many residents — herself included — frustrated, endangered and “prisoners in our homes.”
Jones and councilman Kevin Kravetsky, riding along overnight with borough police officers to monitor homecoming emergencies, helped police rescue residents from the porch roof of a burning home at 650 Maple St. about 1 a.m. Sunday because crowds would not get off the streets to let firetrucks through.
Jones said the officer drove his police cruiser through alleys to get to the fire because Philadelphia Street was packed with people on the traffic lanes.
“There were hundreds and hundreds of kids everywhere,” especially on South Seventh Street, Jones told council Tuesday evening. “It was mind-boggling. … These kids are not getting out of the way,” even for emergency vehicles.
“We were crawling down South Seventh Street. We were afraid of hitting somebody” while responding to the Maple Street fire, Indiana Fire Association Chief Charles Kelly said.
Jones also said there were instances of hundreds of students cramming into off-campus rental properties for impromptu parties, often publicized over social media. Police were often hampered in their efforts to locate a tenant because so many rowdy people were jammed into the houses.
In some cases tenants had invited only a few friends to their off-campus apartment, but hundreds of other students crashed the parties, filled the houses well past safe occupancy limits and frightened neighboring residents.
Jones recalled one distraught tenant collared by police. She said he kept saying, “I’m screwed. I’m screwed. I’m a criminology major and I’m going to be cited for disorderly conduct” although he apparently hadn’t invited the hundreds of students who filled his house.
“A lot of those people (causing trouble during homecoming) are not from IUP,” said Kelly, who is also a retired borough police officer. “You have a lot of out-of-towners” contributing to the disturbances, he said.
“We have to start holding the landlords accountable,” Kravetsky said.
Councilman Ross Bricklemyer, a landlord who owns off-campus student rental properties, said he and his business partner visited his student-tenants before homecoming and cautioned them not to have more guests in their houses than allowed under their lease agreements.
But, Bricklemyer added, once the chaos of nighttime homecoming parties starts, the problem for landlords is even finding one of their tenants in the moving crowds of students.
“This body (council) has a responsibility to our residents. ... We can’t take a breath and say, ‘We’re good for another year,’” Jones said. “We’re going to be proactive” and start developing a strategy for keeping more of a lid on homecoming celebrations in the future — and for avoiding a repeat of the rowdy student behavior that erupted across the borough last March during St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, she said.
Jones said that as a start, she has directed borough manager William Sutton to confer with municipal officials in State College to get suggestions on how that community deals with celebrations by large numbers of students at Penn State University.
Sutton, who is also the borough’s police chief, said he will deliver his report on homecoming police activities to council at next week’s work session.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Councilman John Hartman announced that as a follow-up to Indiana’s designation this spring as a “Playful City USA” community, the borough was a successful applicant for a $20,000 Let’s Play City Construction Grant that will be used for new playground equipment at McGregor Park in the First Ward.
The grant requires a $10,000 match from the borough, and Hartman is confident the match money can be raised through donations and fundraising activities between now and the spring.
Hartman said plans are being made to get borough schools involved in the fundraising events and to make donating easy through a website that is being developed.
Hartman credited borough assistant manager Roland Francis and public works director David Fairman for their efforts in preparing and submitting the successful grant application.
Indiana received the Playful City USA status from KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to saving play opportunities, especially playgrounds, for children.
In an update on discussions on efforts to keep the Indiana Free Library in the borough-owned Community Center Building at Ninth and Philadelphia streets, councilman John Petrosky, chairman of the Administration Committee, said proposals under discussion in committee include offering the library a 10-year lease renewal, eliminating the $6,000 annual rent payment by the library to the borough and providing some of the custodial services for the library through a borough employee rather than through a cleaning service.
Those proposals would need action from the full council, and Petrosky said he could not predict when those proposals might come up for council’s consideration.
Councilman Richard Thorell said he and fellow councilman Peter Broad represented borough government at Monday’s Indiana Area School District directors meeting where possible school realignment and the possible closing of an elementary school in the borough were discussed. They voiced council’s “desire to see neighborhood schools continue in the borough,” Thorell said.
The school board will accept more public comments on school realignment at meetings on Oct. 14 and 28 and Thorell urged more council members to attend those sessions and “make a significant impression on the school board.”
In other action, council:
• Agreed to close North Seventh Street between Philadelphia Street and Nixon Avenue from 5 to 9 a.m. Oct. 28 to allow for a live morning remote broadcast from that location by KDKA Radio in Pittsburgh.
• Heard fire chief Kelly again urge residents and downtown business owners to post street address numbers — at least 3 inches tall and in a color that contrasts with the building’s color — so that firefighters, police and ambulance crews can quickly find places in emergencies. Having legible street addresses on residences and businesses will be critical as a new emergency paging system goes into use, he said.
• Passed a motion requiring council members to keep their cellphones off the table during council meetings. Councilman Petrosky, who made the motion, said the practice of texting during meetings is disrespectful to other council members and gives the appearance that some council members are disinterested in what’s being discussed. Some at the council table said they use their phones during meetings not to send text messages but to take notes, call up information they are presenting or to check calendars when discussing upcoming meetings or events. Petrosky’s motion passed on a 7-5 vote.