University of Iowa asks for student help in dorm security

'If you don't know the person behind you, don't open it'

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When Rebecca Mujica’s roommate leaves their dorm room for class in the morning, she often leaves the door unlocked — even though Mujica is still asleep inside.

But, after news this week of an intruder at the University of Iowa’s second-largest residence hall, Mujica said her roommate is planning to start locking up when she heads out.

“I think she was spooked by it,” said Mujica, 18, a UI freshman who lives in Mayflower Hall.

UI officials on Wednesday said they hope students will learn something from the intrusion, which involved a 23-year-old non-student who police said stole a key to a Burge Hall restroom and videotaped a female student showering inside.

“One thing we try to reinforce is that security in the residence halls is everybody’s concern,” said Von Stange, assistant vice president for student life and senior director of University Housing and Dining.

The university also routinely re-evaluates its security protocols and makes changes, “if we find something we think would better serve the students,” Stange said. The university changed the locks on the Burge bathroom involved in this week’s incident, and police are continuing to investigate whether the suspect has been in the halls before.

“But we can have the best electronic security surveillance cameras we can have, and if a student lets another person into the building without knowing who they are, the risk is there,” Stange said.

The university is taking this opportunity to remind students about residence hall safety, including the importance of reporting lost keys and access cards and shutting and locking dorm rooms.

“And don’t open doors for people who are clearly not students,” Stange said about the secured doors that lead up to student living quarters. “If you don’t know the person behind you, don’t open it.”

Although most of the university’s residence halls keep main doors to the lobbies unlocked until midnight, access to student living areas requires a security card. University officials can lock all residence hall doors remotely, in cases of emergency, and dorms have security cameras at exterior doors and “first-floor access points to student living spaces.”

Security officers also walk the halls between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., and all women’s restrooms have been locked for more than a decade, Stange said.

Safety protocols are mostly uniform across the university residence hall system, and they align with those in place at Iowa’s other public universities. Even new dorms — including the Mary Louise Petersen Residence Hall that opened in the fall and the Madison Street hall slated to open in 2017 — will function as the others, with open lobbies and locked student spaces.

Stange said locking all the doors — including main entrances that lead to lobbies — isn’t feasible, as some halls contain dining facilities open to all students and many residents have visitors who they don’t want standing out in the cold.

But that makes student support in residence hall security paramount, Stange said.

“Students are more likely to entertain those notions now than a week ago,” he said.

Robert L. Hightower, 23, of Iowa City, is accused of entering Burge sometime Sunday or Monday with an acquaintance who was a resident, sneaking into an open dorm room and taking a restroom key off that resident’s keychain. He then is accused of returning Monday night and filming a woman showering.

UI police say he initially got away, fighting off an officer who found him in another bathroom. Police didn’t arrest Hightower until about 24 hours later.

Stange said the incident also should remind students to be wary of those they bring into the dorms — even if they are acquaintances — because residents are responsible for the actions of their guests.

“If a guest comes for the weekend and brings alcohol, you’re responsible for their actions,” he said.

UI officials are “having a conversation” with the student who brought in Hightower, Stange said.

“We will handle it administratively through the student conduct process as we see fit,” he said.

UI freshman Lindsay Brenner, 18, said she lives on the fifth floor at Burge and wasn’t aware of the activity in her hall until a friend — who attends another college — reached out Monday.

“It’s creepy, the fact that he was able to get into the bathroom,” Brenner said.

She said lots of students hold doors open for people coming behind them, and UI freshman Terra Koelker, 19, agreed, saying Monday’s incident could have happened in any of the dorms.

“I hold the door open for anyone,” she said, adding that others do the same for her. “I forget my key all the time.”

On her floor, Koelker said, she and her friends leave their doors unlocked and even open if they’re running down the hall. But she and Elizabeth Recker, 18, said this week’s incident has made them more cautious.

“This is the first thing that’s happened all year, so it’s a wake-up call for freshman,” said Recker, a first-year student who said she plans to be more careful about who she lets in the secure doors. “It’s a common courtesy, but it’s really dangerous.”

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