The instructions were simple: “Make sure your door is locked, keep your dorm key with you at all times.”
Seems like standard warnings for any college campus. But there was a bit more urgency when this directive was passed down by Manhattan College security to students last week. That’s because at least two students residing in Overlook Manor, an off-campus dorm building at West 238th Street and Waldo Avenue, were victims of a man breaking into their rooms, apparently just to watch them sleep.
Campus security described a pair of what they called “trespass incidents” in the building both on Jan. 26, and in the early morning hours of Feb. 9.
Manhattan College is working directly with the 50th Precinct to investigate what college spokesman Pete McHugh says are two sexual assaults, based on what campus security has learned from the victims.
According to police, a female student awoke in the early morning hours of Feb. 9 to find a man kneeling over her. The woman screamed, telling him to get out.
While that specific incident is being investigated as a criminal trespassing, police are treating what happened Jan. 26 as sexual abuse.
The first email to Overlook residents simply encouraged students to stay safe by locking their doors, keeping their room keys with them, and reaching out to the public safety department if they got locked out. By Feb. 14, just a few days later, the school disclosed that a student had been sexually assaulted on Feb. 7, describing the man as between 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-11, white or Hispanic, with full lips, and wearing a gray or black hoodie.
It’s unclear whether or not the person is a student at Manhattan College, or if he lives in the building.
The school has increased the number of employees in that particular residence hall, McHugh said, as well as others across campus.
One Overlook resident, who asked not to be named, filed a report with the police and public safety after a man entered the common area of her apartment late one night. Only one roommate was home, and repeatedly called out from her bedroom to ask who was in the room. After a while, she got a friend to come upstairs.
It was clear that someone had been looking through their belongings, she said, although nothing was taken. They noticed that the door to the room down the hall also was open.
“That’s when they found out there was someone in that room, who had been touching one of the other girls,” she said. “We kind of assumed it was the same person who was in here, and kind of going through our stuff.”
Manhattan tightened visitor policies to residential halls at the beginning of the academic year, according to its website. The new policy requires all students who do not live in a certain dorm building to sign in if they enter between the hours of 8 a.m. and midnight. Visitors must depart by midnight on weeknights, and 2 a.m., on weekends. The school could fine any student living in the residence halls who breaks that directive.
Although designed to help combat these invasions, still some students were frustrated about the new restrictions, according to the unnamed resident. Those students feel that it made it too difficult even to have friends over late. With two assaults now reported, she wondered if those restrictions were really helping to keep students safe.
“It’s a tricky situation, especially when you don’t know who it was or how they actually got into the building,” she said. “If it was a student, if it was a worker. I understand that that puts the school in a weird situation. They had taken all the right steps in the beginning of the year to keep people safe and whatnot, and having the buildings be secure. And something like this happens, it’s like — what’s the next step? And what else can you do?”
Overlook always has a public safety officer stationed at the front desk of the building, McHugh said, and patrols have been increased in Overlook and all dorm buildings since the incidents were reported.
“With someone walking into rooms and stuff, what they’ve been doing hasn’t been working,” the student said. “I don’t necessarily know what the solution would be.”
Working alongside another school to find out what they’ve been doing could work, she suggested, and it could be helpful if Manhattan’s residence life office had a conversation with student committees.
“Honestly, it’s more about having people be more aware, and then also having the school be held accountable for many things,” she said, including public safety and improving the school’s Title IX office, which handles complaints of sexual discrimination and abuse.
While she has noticed an increased number of officers in the building and around campus, she said, they’re often talking with each other or “hanging out,” and are not necessarily paying more attention to the people walking in and out of buildings.
“Everybody has had a little bit of a grudge against public safety, even though they’ve just been doing their job,” she said. “But, obviously, in this case, someone wasn’t doing their job.”