Dormitory desk workers around campus have been urged to be vigilant about security in wake of a theft at Baker House late last month. With desks as the first defense against intruders, many dorms have recently rolled out new policies and been more strict about basic desk policies. Sign-in sheets and guest lists have been emphasized, and two desk workers have been posted during dining hours in dining dorms. Spare room keys have been pulled from behind the desks of several dorms and that policy will likely be applied to all dormitories soon, according to MIT’s office for residential life.
“We’ve been receiving emails to be more vigilant, to make sure every visitor signs in,” said Miriam E. Zachau Walker ’13, a worker at Next House desk.
On Oct. 27, a freshman studying in the fifth floor lounge of Baker was approached from behind and felt an object stuck in his back. The student surrendered his laptop and the suspect fled. No weapon was identified.
As a response to the theft, there are now two desk workers posted at each dining dorm during peak dinner hours from 5-8:30 p.m. One worker is to take care of regular desk business such as mail, packages, and lockouts, while the other watches the door and greets dining guests.
Any MIT student on a meal plan can access dining dorms during dining hours. This high volume of visitors makes it “more difficult for desk workers,” said Walker — the constant flow of people makes it hard to distinguish between residents and nonresidents.
With a second desk worker manning the front desk during dining hours, “all guests are appropriately greeted during peak dining hours,” said Karis E. Stevenson ’12, the McCormick desk captain, saying that an “appropriate” greeting includes signing the visitor log at desk.
“They definitely upped the security at desk,” said Meme T. Tran ’13, a Simmons desk worker. Simmons has two workers from 5-9 p.m. — one of the students just “watches the door to see any strangers or strange activity,” she said.
Dennis Collins, MIT’s director of housing, emphasized that the desks definitely “needed an extra pair of hands” for the busy dinner desk shift. Someone had to look out for “piggybackers,” he said.
“I think we’ve been doing a better job. People have definitely been more attentive [at desk] since they realize things happen at MIT dorms,” added Walker.
“We have been increasing our security — we’re much more stringent about the sign-in policy, updated our emergency response plan, and have been more vigilant about watching out for people following residents into the building,” said Marty Suzane Goldsmith Sweeney ’12, Senior House desk captain, in an email to The Tech.
Guest lists and sign-in sheets
In addition to the new double shifts, the role of guest lists and sign-in sheets have become increasingly important. Some dorms, like Burton Conner and Simmons, have an online system for residents to register people on their guest list. When the guest arrives they can show an ID and be admitted to the building. Some desks require the visitor to wait for the resident to escort them to their room, others allow the visitor to walk through once signing in.
“Each resident can have up to 10 people designated on the online system who are allowed into the dorm upon showing ID,” said Isabella S. Lubin ’12, Burton Conner desk captain, in an email to The Tech. “Residents can adjust this guest list at any time, and any visitor not on the guest list must be retrieved from desk by a BC resident or is turned away from the dorm.”
While dorms like McCormick have had guest lists and sign-in sheets for years, others have just started the policy or don’t have one at all. Next House implemented a guest list this year, though other dorms like East Campus, Bexley, and Baker, among others, still do not have a guest list. Keeping a sign-in sheet or not is up to the individual desks and house governments.
“The only thing I think might be beneficial would be some sort of visitor guest list,” said Morgan R. Houston ’12, a Baker desk worker, when asked what sort of security policies she would like to see added. “I know BC has one, but other than that I think we do a really good job at desk.”
Baker requires nonresidents to be escorted by a resident before proceeding into the dormitory. “If someone does not stop to be picked up by a resident, the policy is to call campus police immediately,” said Kathleen R. Geyer ’12, Baker desk captain, in an email to The Tech.
This type of immediate emergency reaction is possible at dormitories like Baker where residents must pass by the front desk to access the building. While many of the resident buildings are built this way, a few dorms have multiple entrances that are not near the front desk.
East Campus — the second oldest dormitory on campus — is one of those dorms. Despite having multiple entrances, house manager Joe Graham asserts that EC “is the most secure dorm on campus.”
“There are six entrances on the ground, I understand that,” he said. “But they are card access and these are prison-grade doors. Even if you get in the front door, you are stuck in the stairwell.”
Graham said that he didn’t see a need for any new security policies. “Other than enforcing policies we don’t have any plans for policy changes. We have no need for them,” he said.
The different layouts of the dorm make creating a standard security policy difficult, said Collins. Newer buildings, like Maseeh, were redesigned with security in mind.
When Maseeh was renovated, “it had specific security protocol put into it, “said Collins. “You can’t get anywhere in the building except the dining hall because you need a card … to get a residential floor, it is completely secured.”
McCormick, on the other hand, he said, would be “much harder to secure,” since the dining hall is located near the back of the building. Smaller dorms, like Random, are easier to secure.
“Random is probably the safest [dorm],” said Humphreys, citing its small size and secure entrances as its strong points.
Miriam L. Gershenson ’14, a Random Hall desk worker, agreed. “I think the way Random’s desk policy works is good for Random since it’s a small dorm and desk workers recognize everyone in the building. We’re good at keeping people out who don’t belong here.”
Dormitory desk workers have been urged by Housing to be more cautious when lending out keys to students who are accidentally locked out of their rooms.
“The importance of safety policies (such as the renting of spare keys and letting people into the building) have been reiterated and stressed by the house manager,” said Craig M. Broady ’12, MacGregor desk captain, in an email to The Tech.
East Campus and Bexley do not offer lockout keys to residents. There are plans in the works to remove keys from all dormitory desks in the near future, said Humphreys — he acknowledged that this change could be inconvenient.
“During the daytime it’s easy [to manage lockouts] when the house manager is there,” he said, “In the evening, it will have to be Unit 12.”
Unit 12, commonly known as Nightwatch, is a set of guards that patrol the dormitories at night. Nightwatch make rounds of dormitories at midnight and again at 4 a.m. Guards carry master keys to the dormitory to which they are assigned that can open any room.
Humphreys clarified that “pulling the keys” is just a “short term measure.”
“I don’t want us to have a knee-jerk reaction,” he said.
A few dorms like New House and Random Hall previously checked out keys to nonresidents. A resident could specify a small list of people who were permitted to take their key out from desk. This practice has been stopped in all dorms as of last week.
“[Checking keys out to only residents] has always been the policy,” Collins stressed, “The policy in housing is that keys are only allowed to be given to a student that the room is assigned to. That is a policy that the desk staff are aware of … they would lose their job if there were [checking out keys to nonresidents] … that was a miscommunication.”
When residents forget their ID and are locked out of the building itself, they allow residents to knock to be let back in. Other residences, like East Campus, require the resident to call the desk and identify themselves before being buzzed in.
If they don’t call? “They are shit out of luck,” said Holly M. Jamerson ’13, an East Campus desk worker, “We will not let them in unless they call us.” There is a phone provided by the door to the East Campus front desk should a student misplace their cell phone.
In terms of making new security policy, “We need to look holistically,” Humphreys said, and “review existing procedures.”
Students at Baker were asked for feedback about the security system in light of the recent theft.
“We’ve had excellent feedback from the Baker residents,” Humphreys said. Suggestions included changing the card reader system so that it beeps when a nonresident swipes their card to get in for dining. This beep would alert desk workers who otherwise could not tell the difference between residents and guests. Cameras have also been suggested, he said.
In revising dormitory policies, the administration plans to examine procedures at other schools.
“[It] is something we are going to be looking at over the next couple months,” said Collins, “See how other schools do it and what fits with MIT.”
Humphreys, who has worked at Boston College and in New York City, noted that MIT’s different dorm culture makes it harder to adapt other schools’ policies to MIT.
“Its different,” he said, “MIT has a much different culture, but in some ways … the security is tighter. In other ways, it is very easy to get into the building.”
Collins and Humphreys agreed that the theft in Baker three weeks ago was the most serious intrusion that has happened in recent years. The next most recent incident that came to mind, Humphreys said, was an assault in Next House. In 2007, Anna Tang, a student at Wellesley, broke into Wolfe B. Styke ’10’s dorm room at Next and stabbed him repeatedly, but he survived.
The crimes that happen in the dorms are usually small, said Humphreys. “Generally most theft that occurs in a dormitory is usually by people who live inside the community.”
Collins urged students to lock their doors and stay aware. “You as a student should not let someone come in behind you who doesn’t live in the building. Everyone should be locking their bedroom doors.”
“Everyone has to take security personally,” Collins added. “Be conscious of where you are. Don’t let anyone in.”
Humphreys’ goal for the dorms is that “anybody who is not a member of the community doesn’t feel like they can just walk into any place. There [should be] deterrents to them just walking in.”
“These are students’ homes and students should also feel comfortable in them,” he added.
Students who see a suspicious person in their dormitory are encouraged to alert their house team, night watch, or the MIT police.
“Whoever they feel most comfortable getting to,” Humphreys said, “bring it to somebody’s attention.”