Among the young college students at a party hosted by the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity on Sept. 30, College sophomore Mitch Aronoff spotted an adult in a raincoat. He said this woman seemed out of place and did not appear to have attended the event to socialize.
Aronoff said he was sure that she was on patrol as one of the University’s new event observers, who make $35 per hour.
Event observers roam campus on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. as part of a University-wide effort to curtail risks associated with student social events. They work under Penn’s Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives, a division of the Office of the Vice Provost for University Life. Their roles are among those specified in Penn’s new Task Force on a Safe and Responsible Campus Community, which has expanded regulations on campus social gatherings.
The task force was formed earlier this year in response to an incident last fall when the off-campus organization OZ sent sexually suggestive emails to freshman women. Following the task force's recommendations, Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum said VPUL hired 24 event observers from a pool of over 200 applicants.
Of the 24, she said, about one-third are Penn graduate and professional students; another third are Penn staff members and the final third are otherwise affiliated with Penn — such as family members of Penn staff.
Event observers roam campus in pairs, and in general, two pairs work on a given night. Cade said they travel with “Event Observer” hats — so students know they are staff members — a notebook, and other information about safety.
The event observers were trained in August and for the first few weeks of work, they performed their shifts alongside Penn Police to become more familiar with the terrain, Cade explained. But now, the event observers wander on their own without police accompaniment.
“In retrospect," Cade said, “it probably would have been great for us to maybe emphasize that [the event observers and Penn Police] partner constantly, but the roles are different."
Before going out for the night, event observers are given a list of registered events, and are responsible for stopping by those locations to ensure that students are following University protocol.
But various students have expressed dissatisfaction with the role of event observers in student social gatherings. On Sept. 20, Penn College Republicans condemned the "encroachment upon student liberties" that the task force policies and event observers allowed for.
"The administration’s approach, including but not limited to the deployment of event observers, has effectively abrogated the right of students to freely assemble, unequivocally contradicting hallowed American tradition," College Republicans wrote. "In so doing, the administration has neglected its inherent obligation to protect inalienable rights."
Aronoff said he witnessed an event observer in action at the fraternity gathering on Saturday. The party was registered, and he said the event observers came for at least half an hour, walked around the party and talked to the bartenders, hosts and guests.
Event observers are also tasked with finding unregistered events that do not follow campus, or Philadelphia, rules. In these situations, the event observers approach the host and inform them of policies they may be breaking — perhaps related to noise or underage drinking — and suggest that the party guests may be at risk, Cade said.
At an Undergraduate Assembly meeting held on Sept. 17, students raised concerns that the Event Observers were working to surveil students at their events. Students speculated that Penn Police have started relying on event observers to bypass regular protocol, adding that event observers function as lookouts who can tell the officers if illegal activity, such as underage drinking, is occurring.
Cade clarified that event observers cannot shut down a party on their own, but can recommend that students shut down a party or notify Penn Police, who can — and who have been — enforcing the closure of events.
“It just seems to us that the highest priority of every Penn student is to take care of each other,” Cade said.
Administrators have been gathering student feedback on event observers, and recently revised the job description listed for event observers that circulated to the Penn community. Cade hopes the revised description clarifies what she perceives to be the main facet of the event observer job — to educate students about safety.
The initial description, attached above and posted in August, said little about the event observers' role as a support system, but in a document provided by McCoullum, the revised description states that the first “duty” for event observers is to “support students, student organizations, and student activities.”
Also, the description of the event observers' duties has changed — where it said before that the event observers' job was to “shut down and report" unregistered events, the text now says event observers are to “refer unregistered events to Penn DPS for their action as they deem appropriate” and inform party hosts of pertinent policies.
Cade added that she expects event observers to stay on duty past the end of their shift if they encounter a student under duress.
“The whole point of us being there is because we love you,” she said of the event observers. “I see these folks as representatives of us to support you, no matter what time."