This article, written by investigative journalism students at the University of Massachusetts, is presented as part of a larger series addressing issues related to sexual assault on college campuses.
Many colleges use electronic key card systems to keep residence halls and academic buildings locked at all times in an effort to keep campuses safe, but there's a limit to the efficacy of such systems.
On Oct. 12, 2012, four teenage males bypassed dormitory security on the University of Massachusetts-Amherst campus to reach the room of a female student acquaintance, and then allegedly sexually assaulted her multiple times. While the act itself shocked the campus, school officials had to examine how the four young men –- who weren't students -– were able to gain access to the woman's room.
Official accounts state that three of the four men were signed in by a random student, and that the fourth man evaded the front sign-in desk, where both a police cadet and student monitor were present. University officials since then have been weighing how strict security measures should be on campus.
"We could turn these [dorms] all into fortresses, but certainly you don't want to live in a fortress,” said UMass-Amherst deputy chief of police Patrick Archbald. "So how do we make it feel like a home where you can come and go and feel very comfortable, yet, we -- as responsible for your security -- how do we strike that balance?"
Throughout the 2012-13 academic year, reports of rape on university campuses have drawn increased media scrutiny. Across the nation, students, parents and university officials are struggling with how to keep students safe on campus while preserving the college experience.
One important challenge is how to restrict building access only to those who have reason to be there in the first place. Such a distinction isn't so simple as it might seem at first, especially when contending with the human element.
"When someone says, 'Hey, hold the door!' What do our students do? They hold the door open," said J.J. Brown, associate vice chancellor and dean of students at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.
Like many schools, ASU has a 24-hour card swipe system that restricts access only to students who live in a certain building. But others still find their way into buildings.
"They don't know who that person is," Brown said. "They very well may be a friend, they very well may live in that building, they very well may be a stranger or worse -- a perpetrator of some magnitude -- and that's very much a challenge. We do a lot of education around that."
Lisa Powers, the director of public information at Penn State University, said the university is working on a plan to install surveillance cameras in all residential halls soon. Powers explained how "piggybacking" -- or blending in with a crowd to walk through security -- is common among students entering a residential hall that isn't their own.
"Residents are expressly reminded about safety procedures and not allowing unknown individuals to follow them into the residence halls and to not prop open doors," Powers said. "In fact, there are numerous posters on the doors that reiterate this message, and residence hall counselors stress safety measures."
UMass is going a bit further. In March, the university hired the security firm Business Protection Specialists, Inc. of Canandaigua, N.Y., to review campus security, and the company is in the process of developing security recommendations. BPS officials spent March and early April touring all 45 Amherst residential halls and interviewing anyone who has an impact on campus security.
"We want to take this report and make things better, and that's going to cost," Archbald said. "No one wants to see a $20,000 report put together to sit on a shelf."
But no amount of security can stop all sexual assaults.
In February 2013, another alleged rape occurred at an apartment complex on the UMass campus. UMass freshman Weilang Wang was arrested and charged in the incident. The alleged assailant and victim knew one another.
"We could have built Fort Knox," Archbald said. "We could've had a cop at every window, every door, an officer with a rifle in riot gear -- and it would not have stopped that incident."
Which is why some schools are putting an emphasis on education.
The University of Montana in Missoula, Mont. -- dubbed the "rape capital of America" by some -- has undergone its own transformation following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. The university enacted an expansive program, called Personal Empowerment Through Self Awareness, aimed at teaching students about sexual assault through an online video tutorial. The PETSA website contains a quiz and seven short videos covering topics related to sexual assault such as consent, the law, myths and facts, and how to help someone in danger.
In the fall 2012 semester, the school made it mandatory that students pass the quiz with a score of 100 percent before they could pick their spring classes. More than 14,000 students have taken the tutorial so far, according to Peggy Kuhr, vice president of integrated communications for the university.
"What happens next is that new students -- all incoming freshmen and transfer students -- will have to take the tutorial before they register for their classes here," Kuhr said.
Kuhr said that a review of school policies and programs, with regard to both education and security, represents a step in the right direction.
"Education will help us," Kuhr said. "You don't just add more security to a situation."
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