Public Safety works to address harassment, Charlottesville and more

The Washington and Lee Department of Public Safety isn’t taking a back seat to what’s been happening near campus

Maya Lora

From reports of sexual harassment near campus to last month’s riots in Charlottesville, Washington and Lee’s Department of Public Safety is staying atop new concerns being discussed by students and faculty alike.

Three separate female students recently reported incidents of harassment and inappropriate behavior to Public Safety, who then warned the student body.

At least two of the students were harassed by unknown men on East Washington, Massie and Fuller streets, as well as their surrounding areas.

According to one of the students, who prefers to remain anonymous, she was catcalled by two men who appeared to be in their mid-30s while leaving her home. She said that she has experienced activity like this before while on runs in town, but decided to report this particular incident because the men started to walk away, stopped, appeared to take notice of where she lived and then kept going.

Following the student’s report and those of the other two victims, Public Safety said it would be patrolling those streets with the Lexington Police Department more often and gave students tips on how to react in similar situations.

The student said she was happy with Public Safety’s response to her report, adding that they listened to her, took her fears seriously and were kind and comforting throughout the process.

Public Safety echoed that student’s sentiments.

“My hope is that students feel comfortable coming to Public Safety, that they have a good relationship with our Public Safety department [and] feel like we are an important partner in the community for them to work with comfortably in those types of situations,” said W&L Director of Public Safety Ethan Kipnes.

Not including a message announcing the sighting of a black bear on campus the week before most students arrived back on campus, this message concerning harassment was the second of its kind that students had received from Public Safety since the beginning of the academic semester.

A previous blast had details concerning a similar security threat: a man seen masturbating on the trail near Woods Creek Montessori.

When asked if the number of messages was atypical of communication from public safety, Kipnes said this was due to the coincidence of so many events happening at once rather than a new initiative on behalf of his department.

There are laws that dictate when campus security must notify the student body of a situation, but Kipnes said the decision to send out information concerning the harassment of female students was a judgment call.

He said that even though the incidents had occurred off campus, they were clearly of concern to students.

While the blasts are not part of a new security initiative, there have been significant changes to security measures on campus this year.

Most notably, the ‘swipe’ system has been altered. Students can no longer open all campus residential buildings with their ID cards, regardless of whether or not they live there, as they had been able to do in the past.

According to Kipnes, this was a move Public Safety had been considering for a long time, and they made the decision to change the way ‘swipes’ work after talking with representatives from residential life and student activities.

Kipnes pointed out that only being granted access to your own building is the standard practice on most college campuses.

Some students have argued that the previous policy of liberal access was a part of the university’s Honor System. Kipnes does not feel that adjusting this security measure violates that standard.

He also said that these new measures haven’t necessarily been added to watch over students.

“A lot of the things we look at are from the perspective of, ‘Are there things that we can do that put us in a better position to watch out for our community?’” Kipnes said.

The Department of Public Safety is also responding to issues with the new ‘swipe’ system and modifying it as concerns are brought to their attention. For example, peer counselors now have access to freshman dorms.

While changing the ‘swipe’ system has been on the table for a while, safety concerns for the campus were heightened following last month’s race riots in Charlottesville.

Kipnes noted that due to the university’s connection with Robert E. Lee and the Civil War, a coalition with representatives from the city of Lexington, Washington and Lee and VMI has been meeting every other week since the unrest near UVA to ensure the campuses and the city are as safe as possible.

Kipnes said Public Safety is currently considering additional ways to tighten campus security, for example, by restricting building hours for everyone but those attending or employed at the university.