Content warning: This article contains mentions of sexual violence.
“People are taking scissors with them to the shower in case someone sinister enters the bathroom,” said Mahita Desaraju, a freshman at American University. At a walkout organized by Lillian Frame and Emily Minster, two AU seniors with sexual violence prevention backgrounds, Desaraju spoke into a megaphone held by another student wearing a red tank top reading “protect survivors” across the front. “Most people shower in pairs to feel safer, and I hardly hear the showers run at night anymore.” Desaraju spoke to a dorm break-in that occurred on AU’s Washington, D.C., campus.
Around 2 am on October 31, 2022, an unknown individual entered the all-female floor of Leonard Hall, a first-year dorm at American University, gaining access to two rooms and reportedly sexually assaulted one of the residents. The community speculates that the intruder was another student, given their ability to enter the building by, presumably, an AU ID card.
The morning after the incident, an e-mail was sent to the students’ guardians informing them of the night’s events. According to several students, they heard about the break-in from their families prior to receiving any communication from the school. Many students regarded lack of direct communication as the university’s way of appeasing parents, rather than supporting those harmed.
By November 4, activists on campus had mobilized, setting up a university-wide walkout accompanied by a list of demands to the school’s administration to improve student safety and survivors’ well-being. A week later, close to 500 attendees, according to AU’s It’s On Us chapter, gathered on the school’s Eric Friedheim Quadrangle to protest AU’s inaction regarding sexual violence: an issue ongoing for many years further exposed by the break-in.
One speaker, Faith Ferber, shared her own experience of reporting to the school. As an AU student, Ferber was assaulted by a peer in 2015. After the school’s mishandling of her case, including misrepresenting her story in a community memorandum, Ferber felt forced to come out publicly and filed a complaint with federal officials. Since then, more claims that the university mishandled sexual violence reports have come to light. In 2019, there were five open Title IX investigations into American University, as reported by the AU’s student newspaper, The Eagle. According to the paper, AU had the highest number of open federal investigations into Title IX misconduct in the country. A current AU professor, who knew Ferber at the time of the incident and wished to remain anonymous out of the fear of retaliation, said Ferber was essentially blackmailed by the school, in an attempt to keep the failures in her case from becoming public.
During the walkout, the response by the American University Police Department was also criticized by students. Grace Cosovich said she was a witness to the break-in and reported details of the intruder to the police. According to her, the AUPD misrepresented the description of the suspect, despite her insistence on how the intruder actually looked. When she called the department several days later to check-in, she was informed that her initial statement did not exist. “They had no record of me giving the report before,” said Cosovich. “They said they’d never heard anything of what I said.”
At the time of publication, the American University Police Department has yet to return any calls for comment from The Nation. Administrative Coordinator for University Communications and Marketing Maria A. Edmonds, whom the AUPD pointed to as handling media updates on the case, has not responded either. Matt Bennett, the university’s chief communications officer, cited additional security for student housing as one step the university was taking to address the violence. “Safety patrols were enhanced around the residence halls, including Leonard Hall, and an AUPD vehicle and personnel were stationed outside that building. Security protocols were reviewed with residents and staff. We continue to support the students involved in this matter in a number of ways, including through the Office of Equity and Title IX.”
But according to Frame and Minster, the school has not addressed any of the specific demands presented by over 1,400 signatories—most of whom were AU students. In an e-mail received by Frame in response to the demands, Sylvia Burwell, the current president of American University, wrote: “You should have received the first communication from the Community Working Group on Preventing Sexual Harassment and Violence. As the group comes together, your list of recommendations will be shared with the members for the first meeting.” Frame felt hopeful for eventual change and pleased that advocates were asked to join the group. But she was still worried that the university was hoping for “everyone to forget” about the issue during the Thanksgiving break, easing pressure on the school.
Last week, Frame and Minster participated in the first Committee Working Group meeting. According to Frame, only one of the seven requested members of administration was present and there was no discussion of concrete action items the school would take in collaboration with the student body. Bennett said, when the university was asked for comment, that “more than 50 students, faculty, and staff participated in the first meeting on November 30. The group is exploring key areas including services and support; safety and security; education and community awareness; and policies. The group is charged with providing recommendations to the university president and cabinet by the spring.” “Over the course of two and a half hours I found myself wondering, once again, what the efficacy of this would be,” said Frame after the meeting. “They didn’t talk about the walkout or demands. It went exactly the way we expected it to, which is to say not well.” According to Frame, the next meeting is scheduled for late January—almost two months after the first.
A Dangerous Trend: Dorm Break-Ins Often Follow A Specific, Detrimental Pattern
Violent and sexual crimes on college campuses aren’t new. The Clery Act was passed in 1990 in the aftermath of the rape and murder of Lehigh University student Jeanne Clery. Clery’s parents were shocked to discover the lack of safety measures at their daughter’s school and lobbied to ensure colleges must disclose their campus precautions and crimes in transparent annual reports. Clery Act violations can trigger external probes into the schools as well as potential loss of federal funding.
In recent months, dorm break-ins at various schools seem to have increased in frequency. While some, like the October of 2022 string of room burglaries at Harvard University, have a material motive, most appear to target students present in the rooms, with no belongings going missing in the aftermath. Recently, break-ins have occurred at New York University, Manhattan College, Lynn University, Chico State University, University of Minnesota, and Loyola University. The intruders, whether other students or outsiders, tend to target all-female housing. Many schools, like AU, have floors designated for woman-identifying residents only. It is common to have students’ names on their doors, which makes it easier for an intruder to identify their target. They appear to exploit weak dorm security: They either sneak in with the actual residents, pretend to act as maintenance staff, or get in through unlocked windows or doors.
Many universities have failed to take rapid action to mitigate future break-ins. In the New York University cases, intruders have entered at least four separate dorms in the past year. A security review and potential overhaul were announced on December 1, more than a year after the first in the string of break-ins. After Leonard Hall was broken into, the university increased the AUPD presence around the dorm, but this would not eliminate the possibility of intruders at the other dorms. At the time of publication, more than a month had passed since the American University break-in, but the school has not yet implemented the practical safety measures students have repeatedly suggested, such as installing shower doors with locks and placing CCTV cameras in the elevators. Bennett said, “The first meeting yielded a number of important opportunities for progress, and several items raised in the first meeting are currently being advanced.”
Instead of taking immediate precautions and implementing swift—albeit financially demanding—changes, many schools appear to stall, waiting out the pressures from their communities. Both Desaraju and Asad wondered if American University might hold out until the summer break to avoid actually making any changes. “They say, ‘Oh, we’re looking into solutions,’” said Frame. “They’ve been given solutions. If they listen to and prioritize their students, it would be a much smaller issue than they’re making it out to be.”