Midnight, Halloween, Thursday, Oct. 31. After a long day of classes, show rehearsals and the accumulated sleep depravity that typically accompanies just-another-week at Vassar, Zamir Birnbach ’20 had settled into his Town House for bed.
“I didn’t hear anything, but my sixth sense kicked in, and my eyes opened,” Birnbach said of his sudden awakening at 2:30 a.m. A young man wearing a black hoodie and black jeans loitered in Birnbach’s dark bedroom, standing by his dresser.
“My adrenaline is going, and I’m like, ‘Yo, what the fuck,’” recounted Birnbach. “I turn on the light and I see this guy, and I was like, ‘What’s going on,’ and he was confused and he kept asking about [another] house.”
Birnbach asked for the intruder’s name, and was given one he believed to be fake. The intruder tried to explain his presence by claiming that he was high. Birnbach asked him to empty the contents of his drawstring bag, confirming that the individual had not stolen anything from the TH. According to Birnbach, the intruder was nonaggressive; in fact, he appeared “pretty coherent” and “pretty laid back.” The man simply put his shoes back on, and upon Birnbach’s request, exited the house.
“It seems surreal. It could’ve gone a lot worse, that’s for sure,” Birnbach added. “Even now, when I’m recreating that situation, waking up from the vantage point of seeing that guy, it’s scary. Nobody should have to go through that.”
While a combination of confusion and shock kept Birnbach from reporting the incident immediately, it would later surface that his encounter was only the first or second in a 24-hour wave of crimes on campus. In one instance, a student awoke to find a college-aged female in their room in Noyes, Safety and Security Director Arlene Sabo shared in an email sent to students. In another occurrence around 10:30 that morning, Mojan Farid ’20 walked into her TH to find an elderly man sitting down on her living room couch.
A third email by Sabo indicated the most severe crime: Two intruders, one holding what appeared to be a handgun, entered a TH. They bound the students, searched the house and fled the scene. No arrests have been made in connection with any of the incidents, and all break-ins occurred in residences with unlocked doors.
The survivors of the armed burglary declined to comment for this article, citing respect for their privacy and safety. Farid and Birnbach went on record with The Miscellany News to share their encounters.
According to Farid, a red SUV sat outside her house, watching her walk by as she exited. “I didn’t think much about it,” Farid recalled. “I was gone for five or six minutes, realized that I had forgotten something, and when I came back, he was just sitting there on the couch in my room, not on his phone or anything, just sitting there.” Farid asked the intruder what he was doing, and he responded that he was waiting for his granddaughter to change. When asked what his granddaughter’s name was, Farid told him that nobody by that name lived nearby. “He left pretty easily, but it was just weird because he probably would have come in with his granddaughter if she was going to change,” Farid conjectured. “It was just weird that he couldn’t answer me.”
Following the incidents in Birnbach’s and Farid’s residences, and prior to the armed burglary, Safety and Security increased campus patrols and sent out campus-wide emails reminding people to lock their doors and windows. Campus patrols are unarmed, leaving them primarily tasked with spotting incidents and calling the police if a crime becomes visible.
“Sometimes you prevent, and that’s the idea. Patrol is a backbone of any safety, security, law enforcement department, in that there is prevention just by presence,” Sabo indicated, highlighting that Safety and Security primarily serves to deter.
But some students see the patrols differently. “I mean, besides just, like, parking out there, I don’t know what [Safety and Security] is doing,” said Farid. “Maybe that brings a sense of security, but I don’t think that’s necessarily an active way of protecting, and in a way that makes many students nervous.”
Many TH residents and students remain on edge about their safety on campus. “I have been feeling very uneasy since this incident happened. Right now we have no trust in safety conditions,” said one TH resident, who lives in a house near the site of the armed burglary, and asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons. “I’m losing sleep thinking about it. At the very least they need to put a security outpost by the THs.” In a recent survey of 101 students conducted by The Miscellany News, 28.7 percent of respondents answered “no” to the question “Do you feel safe on campus right now?”
The College has been quick to consider new security measures following the incidents. The morning of the armed robbery, a group of senior administrators formed a new safety task force, according to Vice President of Communications Amanita Duga-Carroll. So far, the task force has conducted a site visit of the THs and put into motion a plan for temporary lighting enhancements in the area. “Both are top priorities and will be completed as soon as possible,” added Duga-Carroll. Longer-term plans include installing self-locking doors on all THs.
In the past, the College has employed visibly stronger security measures, like a security outpost near the THs and a closed campus. But optical security in several forms has not prevented similar violent crimes from occurring. In January of 2005, an assault and mugging took place on the path of the THs (The Miscellany News, “Student assaulted on path to Town House,” 02.11.2005). On Nov. 15, 2008, students outside Chicago Hall were lined up “execution style” during an armed robbery (The Miscellany News, “Four students robbed at gunpoint on campus,” 11.20.2008).
“Guarding has been associated with increases in violence, too,” President Bradley explained when asked about possibly returning to stronger deterrence methods. “There are all kinds of unintended effects.”
Regardless of how the College, student body and victims move forward from this incident, it marks a departure from the campus’ prior relationship with safety.
“We kind of live in this Vassar utopia. Well, that existed until last week,” added Birnbach, who said that he is now keeping his tennis racquets within arm’s reach of his bed. “It was like, oh yeah, everyone’s friends here and we can leave our doors unlocked and we can just walk around and go into houses … It’s literally a wake-up call in the worst possible way.”
President Bradley expressed a similar sentiment. “I think that people on campus do get into the mode that they don’t have to lock their doors, that they don’t have to lock the car, that they could leave their laptop for six or seven hours in the lounge and it’ll be there when they get back. And, usually, when you’re home, you kind of feel that way, because it’s home,” she concluded. “But the truth is, that’s not really realistic in today’s world.”
Additional reporting by Jessica Moss, Olivia Watson, Noah Siderhurst and Eli Hurwitz