Anxiety High in Wake of Trespass Report, Sexual Assault

by Gabriella DePinho, Editor-in-Chief

The Feb. 14 email that informed students of an alleged sexual assault sent shockwaves throughout the Manhattan College community. In the week after hearing the news, students have been looking for answers and a way to feel secure again. So far, students have not had much luck.

In response to students’ anxiety, administrators decided to host a town hall for Overlook Manor residents. The town hall, held on Feb. 19, was formatted as a panel. There was representation from the Resident Student Association, Student Government Assembly, the Office of Residence Life, the Dean of Students’ office, the Office of Public Safety, and the Counseling Center on the panel.

The common room on the first floor of Overlook Manor was filled with residents, many of whom came prepared with comments, concerns and questions they wanted answered. The panel fielded questions and concerns for approximately an hour and fifteen minutes.

So What Actually Happened?

Students wanted to know what happened, but it has been made clear that at this time, the college cannot give students anymore information than they already have.

“One of the things that’s really, really important when there are active investigations is that we don’t discuss the specifics of the cases. And that makes sense, right? Not only for the individuals involved confidentiality but also because sometimes in our well-meaning to inform and appease, we can also disrupt the investigation. So we’re not going to be discussing specific cases,” said Esmilda Abreu-Hornbostel, the new dean of students.

Abreu-Hornbostel has been at Manhattan College for less than a month. In the town hall, she identified herself as someone who has worked as a sexual assault advocate since she was a teenager in an effort to reassure students that she cares about the matter. After stating that specifics would not be discussed at the town hall, she encouraged conversation about the climate of the building and other concerns students may have.

In the town hall, Peter DeCaro, the director of Public Safety, did confirm that they were dealing with two reported cases, but no further information was given.

While the college is not at liberty to discuss specifics with the student body, the New York Police Department is not beholden to the same laws. Police reports are public records; while it is an active investigation and many details cannot be shared, the 50th Precinct has been able to share some previously undisclosed information with other news outlets.

In a story by The Riverdale Press that hit stands on Thursday, Feb. 20, police confirmed that the Jan. 26 incident is being treated as sexual abuse and that the Feb. 9 incident is being treated as criminal trespassing. While the story does not contain further details of the Jan. 26 incident, the story does further detail the events of Feb. 9, confirming some rumors that have floated around campus.

“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,” wrote Riverdale Press reporter Kirstyn Brendlen in the story titled “Police hunt man breaking into college dorms.”

The same story also confirms the rumor that these two incidents are not the only ones in which a man entered an Overlook apartment late at night. A student who decided to remain anonymous in the story confirmed that she filed a report after hearing someone in the common area of her apartment and later finding that it was “clear that someone had been looking through their belongings.”

This rumor, that the perpetrator of the Feb. 9 incident entered other rooms, was confirmed by Overlook Manor resident and senior Rachel Bianculli.

“I know somebody whose room he went into,” Bianculli said. “I know at least two people’s rooms he went into.”

When other local news outlets got wind of the story, Waldo Avenue and 238th Street were lined with news vans and numerous students were stopped for interviews. However, all of these news outlets reported different narratives regarding the cases.

NBC reported that there were “two incidents of students allegedly waking up to find a stranger watching them sleep, and in one case sexually assaulting a woman” in a report attributed to reporter Anjali Hemphill. An ABC7NY report by Naveen Dhaliwal states that “two female students from Manhattan College both reported they were sexually assaulted by a man who broke into their dorm rooms while they were sleeping.”

A PIX11 piece by Mark Sundstrom confirmed what Public Safety and Residence Life had initially communicated with students: in the report of the Feb. 9 incident, no injuries were reported. The same piece, “Manhattan College dorm break-in, sexual assaults reported in the Bronx” gives new information: the Jan. 26 incident was not reported to the Office of Public Safety until Feb. 11.

In an effort to try to clarify the differing information reported by other outlets, The Quadrangle attempted to contact the 50th Precinct but was not able to get through to an officer for comment.

Why Did The Emails Come “Late”?

One concern that came up at the town hall was the timing of the email that notified students of the incident. At the time of the town hall, students had no knowledge of or no way of obtaining knowledge about when the incidents were reported.

With the new information reported by Sundstrom, the purported “late” communication to students about the investigation of the Jan. 26 incident makes more sense in the timeline of events. However, no other news outlets have confirmed this information regarding the date of the report being filed for the Jan. 26 incident.

DeCaro claimed both to The Quadrangle and to the attendees of the town hall that the delay in communication was because of the information the office had at the time.

“You guys know everything that we can share with you,” DeCaro said to The Quadrangle. “I know it appears sometimes when you get a response like that, that somebody is hiding something, but it’s all about the privacy stuff, specifically the privacy of the complainant or the victim.”

DeCaro continued, “We received information that day that prompted that message going out, so there was no delay in communicating the information. As soon as we got it, we digested it, we saw what we had and we understood we needed to send out an alert about it.”

At the town hall, students questioned why Residence Life decided to send emails about staying safe with no information about police involvement. Students expressed a desire to know about police involvement, but Charles Clency, director of Residence Life, stood by the office’s decision to send out the emails solely containing safety tips to Overlook residents.

“That email initially was sent out because of the fact that, in the discovery of what took place with the initial trespass, we learned that it involved a door – to several doors – being unlocked,” Clency said. “So we couldn’t speak to the event that occurred on the weekend, because we didn’t have the facts and that was a police and public safety matter, but we could speak to try to educate the students and remind them that they need to lock their doors for that extra notion of security.”

Residents are taking extra precautions after the two reported incidents in Overlook Manor. GABRIELLA DEPINHO / THE QUADRANGLE

It is clear that whether or not unlocked doors are a result of broken locks or trusting residents, students had never previously felt unsafe with their doors unlocked.

“No one ever knew or would think that this is an issue,” Bianculli said. “You know everybody in your hall, you feel safe around them. Everybody has their door unlocked and no one ever thought something like this would happen.”

How Does Campus Get Safer and Stay Safer?

One thing that was important for the panelists to get across to the students in attendance was that students need to actively participate in keeping the campus safe. Suggestions from panelists include making sure students lock their doors, always keep their keys with them and follow access control.

The new access control policy was instituted at the start of the 2019-2020 academic year and was initially met with widespread backlash from students. As the year has gone on, students have become accustomed to signing friends in and making weekend plans around the 2 a.m. sign-out time on Fridays and Saturdays. However, many students still try to find ways around access control by switching ID cards, using the 8th floor bridge in Lee Hall and Horan Hall and by taking advantage of Jasper Hall’s and Chrysostom Hall’s lack of a public safety officer.

The panelists’ comments about students taking action was met with some upset reactions from attendees of the meeting.

“It’s not our job to protect us. It’s your job to protect us. It’s our job to go to school and get good grades,” said Clayton Williams, an Overlook resident.

Another resident, Kayla McDermott said, “Obviously someone came in, or it’s someone in this building, so what the hell is access control going to do when I can go into a safer building somewhere else?”

Students advocated for more Public Safety officers doing rounds in the dorms and more security cameras. Additionally, students raised concerns about Public Safety officers not paying attention to students swiping in at the front door when posted there. There were also students who advocated for access control to be better enforced but also revamped to be more user friendly. A few female residents complained that though they felt unsafe, they could not stay the night in another dorm building with a friend.

DeCaro confirmed that Public Safety presence in all of the dorm buildings have increased since the incidents were reported. He also confirmed that cameras are always being added or updated around campus but did not say whether or not more were being added to the dorm buildings in the wake of these incidents.

“Security cameras are a very great thing in that they aid the investigation of any incident but they’re not the end all,” DeCaro said. “A security camera may not stop crime from occuring, but it would help in the investigation.”

News crews flock to Riverdale in wake of reports of sexual assault in Overlook Manor on 238th St. JOE LIGGIO / COURTESY

DeCaro did not confirm or deny if his office had caught the perpetrator of the incidents on camera. According to Overlook residents at the meeting, there are no visible cameras in the hallways. This leads some residents to believe that there may not be any.

Students in the town hall expressed that being told to be safer felt like they were being blamed for the crime that occurred.

“At no point is there blame towards the students,” Abreu-Hornbostel said. “That’s not the point of reminding us all about personal safety.”

After the town hall occurred, DeCaro said to The Quadrangle, “It’s all about managing risk. I think that’s a good way of putting it. You manage risk for yourself as an individual. So locking your door eliminates risk for you. Not walking down a dark street by yourself eliminates risk for yourself. Wearing a seatbelt in your car eliminates risk for yourself. So there’s a whole bunch of things that sometimes you take for granted and that we should do every day to eliminate those risks in our lives.”

As the town hall wore on, it became clear that several distinct issues were being raised and confronted.

“Even in this room, where people care enough to give up so much time, you’re having different approaches,” Abreu-Hornbostel said. “I think the next step is to come together to create a strategy that can really address conflicting issues, but important issues, like your ability to move around freely, your ability to have adult agency, your ability to be safe and your ability to also know that we’re improving our systems. So I hear you and I think we have to follow through.”

While it’s clear that there is room for improvement on security and room for administrators and students to work together to address concerns students may have, the investigations are still open, the perpetrator is still loose and anxiety is still running high.

“Right now, I’m uneasy,” Bianculli said. “It’s my last semester. I wish there was a better feeling of safety and security and better trust in the people in charge currently but I feel very uneasy right now. What a way to go out.”