With additional reporting by Senior Editor Noble Ingram.
“Every one of us was home at the time,” said Natalie DiCenzo ’16. It was a typical Thursday evening in her Terrace Apartment (TA) with its inhabitants spending the night in and people coming and going periodically.
Around 1 a.m., DiCenzo and one of her housemates were talking in her room when they heard a strange shuffling noise coming from the door of one of the rooms across the hall. As she noted, however, “Why would you expect it to be anyone other than your housemate walking around or going to the bathroom?”
Seconds later, DiCenzo’s own door unexpectedly cracked open, and a strange pair of eyes peered in, followed by the beam of a flashlight. Upon seeing that the room was not empty though, the TA’s uninvited visitor bolted off out the door, into the night. After inspecting the state of the house once their unwanted guest ran away, DiCenzo discovered that her housemate’s room had been entered, and his backpack, including valuable personal items like his laptop, had been stolen.
DiCenzo’s story is not an isolated incident, however. It is one of several burglaries committed in Vassar’s senior housing
during the beginning weeks of this semester.
Drury McAlarney ’16 came back to his own TA one night to discover that his home too had been burglarized, and his phone and wallet gone. He reported the robbery to Safety and Security, who promptly put Poughkeepsie police on the case. Much to McAlarney’s frustration, however, after the police came to his TA the next day to photograph the crime scene and provide him and his housemates with a number to call with any further information, little more could be done, and the culprit remained, and still does remain, at large.
According to Director of Safety and Security Arlene Sabo, suspects have only been found in the College’s investigations for one of the incidents, and the rest of the cases remain unsolved despite being part of an ongoing investigation by the Town of Poughkeepsie Police Department.
As can be expected though, this series of burglaries has created a pervasive feeling of discomfort and unease among upperclassmen living in the TAs and Town Houses (THs).
According to Sabo’s all-campus advisory emails, one student that was attacked in the kitchen while attempting to stop an unlawful intruder, and many students fear being confronted with similar situations. “I’ve become so paranoid. I used to just lock my front door, but now I lock my bedroom door, I lock the windows,” McAlarney remarked. “I was at the Villard Room on Saturday night, and I had a bag with me that just had my VCard and my keys, but I didn’t want to put it down or out of my sight.”
Perhaps the most obvious potential solution is to enhance security presence in the THs and the TAs, as some students have claimed that a diminishing presence of campus security in such areas, particularly in the TAs, has facilitated these crimes. Sabo, however, maintained that such concerns have no practical basis. She wrote, in an emailed statement, “It seems likely to me that an individual or two have discovered vulnerabilities and have taken advantage of them. It is very easy to wait for an officer to drive or walk by and then go into an unsecured apartment under the cover of darkness.”
Sabo also noted that Safety and Security are currently in the process of examining possible reallocation of resources and personnel on both temporary and permanent bases. The department is also reportedly discussing ideas for potential installation of surveillance cameras and tightening of access restrictions to certain areas on campus.
To many students, however, the prospect of upping security around campus is not as obvious as it may seem. In past years, students of color have often felt targeted by campus security personnel, and as such many feel uncomfortable with increasing their presence on campus as a practical solution to the problem. “I’m hesitant,” McAlarney noted. “I know that increased security presence on Vassar’s campus, also in the world, tends to come along with racist or classist [consequences].”
Drawing on feedback from members of her constituency, THs President Maya Horowitz instead suggested that students help themselves be safe. “Given the timely nature of these crimes I doubt how effective increasing security patrols would be in actually reducing trespassing,” she explained. “If any sort of surveillance is to be increased it should come in the form of student campus patrollers or a neighborhood watch.”
Many agree that the effort to make campus more safe will have to come from students themselves, and that students must take a more active role in protecting themselves and their belongings. “I don’t know that a lot of people lock their dorm room doors…I feel like that sticks with you and you forget that there is just one door between you and the rest of the world,” DiCenzo admitted. “We feel dumb but we know it is not just us.”
Sabo echoed, “It may seem very basic but the first line of defense is locking doors and windows. Criminals often commit crimes of opportunity. When they have to take action that would make noise or involve obvious unlawful action they are likely to move on.”
Although the community has yet to decide exactly how it will move forward in keeping students and their belongings safe, Sabo remains unphased by the recent burglaries, and wished to reassure students that these incidents are valuable opportunities for positive change in community safety.
She remarked, “I understand how unsettling this feeling can be. I think it is important to keep in mind that no one and no location can ever be invulnerable. So, in an odd way, having this feeling is the first step toward improved personal safety. It can be used as a catalyst to analyzing what steps a person (and the institution) can and is willing to take for safety’s sake…”