School of Hard Knocks | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

School of Hard Knocks 

The brick house across from St. George's Church in Oakland has cheerily painted green and yellow trim, a riot of vegetables and flowers growing to the side and a porch filled with toddler toys. It also has an empty can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and one of Milwaukee's Best strewn in the grass by the sidewalk.

Knocking on the door, you'll have to be patient as Greg Schaffer shuffles to open it, his right ankle encased in a black cast and beige Velcro bootie. The ankle was broken in a fight with neighboring college students.

He and his wife Cassi Schaffer-McNalley say they've loved living in Oakland for its culture and vibrancy, but they want to sell the Dawson Street home they've owned for 10 years. Over the years, conflicts with student renters have grown into what feels like war, and the night of Aug. 5 sealed it. "When we first moved in, it was a quaint community," Schaffer says. "It's not like that anymore. We're both done."

That night, the family was up late, loading up the car for an early morning departure for their vacation to North Carolina. They were packing their rented minivan and explaining the finer points of dog minding to their neighbor and tenant, Holly Fenner.

Across an alley behind the house, a party was in full swing. Schaffer says the patio was crammed with people, probably 100 or more, and a keg of beer. He says all three floors of the building appeared to be part of the party, which was "loud as hell." Both Fenner and the Schaffers had called 911, they say.

Police hadn't arrived. As he was about to load his video camera into the van, Schaffer says, he thought he'd do a thing he'd done many times before: get some footage of the party, to back up his claims of how big and out of control it was. He says police had told him in the past taping was a good way to document parties. So he set out to capture some footage from his backyard.

After fumbling with the camera's night-vision function, Schaffer says he made one more 911 call, this time at 12:30 a.m. to report that the party had grown by 25 to 30 people. The tape doesn't clearly show any faces in the dark, and Schaffer put the camera down to make the call.

"I turned around and someone was here" beside the pink rosebush, he says. Schaffer says he told the guy to leave his property. From the front porch, Schaffer-McNalley says she heard someone ask, "Why you putting the camera on my boy?"

"He throws his beer in my face, followed by two punches," says Schaffer.

Schaffer attempted to retreat to the basement door, which is secluded under a deck. When he realized that he'd be unable to get in, he looked up and saw that five additional people had come into his yard. He came out swinging, he says -- with a shovel that had been propped beside the door.

"There's two people over there bleeding," he says. "Then, there was a guy under the window saying, 'Wait till morning, I'll fucking kill you.'" He says he became even more enraged, thinking about his wife and daughter nearby. But, he says, "I had the wherewithal to turn it" so that, after hitting the first two people, he was only brandishing the shovel's handle. He says his assailants wrested the shovel from him, and that he was mobbed by partygoers -- one of whom started in on Schaffer's ankle. "That's his goal: He's jumping on my ankle."

Fenner and Schaffer-McNalley had been on the front porch starting to wonder what was taking Schaffer so long. Fenner says she saw 50 people swarm out from the party to the sidewalk, and about 30 of those enter the yard. "I screamed to them, 'You need to quit it, the cops are on the way.'" She called 911 again.

According to the incident report, a car from Zone 4 arrived at 12:40 a.m. The officers put Schaffer in cuffs, while his ankle was bleeding.

Calls to Zone 4 commander Kathy Degler were not returned.

Fenner and the Schaffers say the police didn't issue any citations to the partygoers, but told them to get out of the Schaffer's yard and back into the party house. The three partygoers who'd been part of the fracas stayed and talked to police, but the incident report lists only Schaffer as being cited.

Schaffer says he was taken to Mercy Hospital where he received stitches on his ankle. He says he spent three or four hours at the hospital before being booked, spending the night in jail until Schaffer-McNalley could bail him out.

He was booked on felony charges of assault, assault with an instrument of crime and possession of marijuana, a half-ounce of which he planned to take to the beach.

The preliminary hearing is set for Sept. 13.

Visits paid to the party house and a note and business card left by a City Paper reporter haven't yielded a response.

"I keep having these periodic anxiety attacks," says Schaffer-McNalley. "What if he goes to jail?" She says even though they've emptied their savings to pay for Schaffer's injuries -- they don't have health insurance -- and to hire an attorney, she's willing to pay a fine. After all, they aren't denying that Schaffer attacked people with the shovel, or that he had drugs in his pocket.

But still, Schaffer-McNalley says, "I think the double standard has gotten worse. We live in a different city." Their frequent calls to police rarely result in citations, she says, and they're often told, "It's Oakland, it's where the students are, what do you expect?"

University of Pittsburgh officials, while refusing to comment on a specific incident, say that any community member can file a complaint against a student, on or off campus, through the Office of Student Affairs.

"If they just tell us about a situation, we'll address it with a student," says Kathy Humphrey, vice provost and dean of students at Pitt. Humphrey adds that students are expected to be familiar with Pitt's code of conduct. "Everybody understands it, we know what our expectations are -- inside and outside our community -- the respect of others is just a value that we have," she says.

Pitt spokesperson John Fedele says that if the judicial board's investigation finds that a student has violated the code of conduct, reprimands from community service to expulsion could be levied.

Humphrey says she hasn't noticed a particular uptick in complaints. "Occasionally we get a report," she says. "It's not like every day, it's not like every month -- it's very seldom."

"They've got this line that it's a rite of passage," says Schaffer of the police response. "So, anyone from age 14 to 34 is allowed to come down here and party? I've been here 10 years. This is bullshit."

Fenner, their neighbor and tenant, has lived in another of their properties on Dawson Street for three years and attends Pitt. She's also started a block watch and attempted to form partnerships with police, landlords and student tenants. "We're not irrational," she says. "We don't mind parties. We just don't want to be assaulted or pissed on." She says she called the mayor's office about the problem, and didn't hear anything until a story ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about an inebriated student attempting to force his way into her house.

The three neighbors say trying to deal with Pitt has been frustrating. Fenner and Schaffer say they found a contact person who was willing to work with them and hear their frustration, only to have that person leave their post before anything could be accomplished. "It's déjà vu," says Fenner.

"Being part of the solution has gotten me a broken leg," says Schaffer.

Greg Schaffer and his wife Cassi Schaffer-McNalley, at left, say a violent altercation with partygoers near Pitt's campus left Schaffer injured and facing felony charges. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Greg Schaffer and his wife Cassi Schaffer-McNalley, at left, say a violent altercation with partygoers near Pitt's campus left Schaffer injured and facing felony charges.

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