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The Walk Home

By Olamipe I. Okunseinde

As a first-year, despite my parents’ warnings and my small stature, I would brazenly walk home at all hours of the night. Cockily sauntering home from the library or a review session in the Science Center, I felt completely safe strutting around the grounds of Harvard: my new campus. With age came not wisdom but fear.

As a senior, I might still walk home alone from time to time, but there is a noticeably quicker step to my gait. My eyes constantly dart around, visually inspecting every dark hovel. At least one hand is always buried into my coat pocket. Not simply stuffed in to keep warm, the hand holds tight to a cell phone set to dial 911 and just waiting to connect the call if necessary. I am not alone. Other females grip room keys, ready to wield them as weapons. Some refuse to leave their rooms without pepper spray in their purses.

Harvard women know there are many times we do not feel safe walking around at night. After last week’s assault—the fifth of this semester—we are again cruelly reminded that our fears are not unjustified paranoia. They do indeed hold merit.

At least to some extent, the fear of sexual assault has always been a reality for every female. The 1988 National Report on Crime and Justice states that three out of four American women will be victims of violent crimes sometime during their lives. In 1995 Lonnie Bristow, M.D., former president of the American Medical Association, described sexual assault as “a ‘silent-violent epidemic’ growing at an alarming rate and traumatizing the women and children of our nation.” Statistics show that sexual assault occurs every 45 seconds in America. But it is the attacks in our own backyard, despite declining rates of crime in Cambridge as a whole, which is shedding a harsh light on issues of concern to many undergraduates.

More than 48 hours after the most recent assault occurred, there were still students who had received no official word of the incident from the administration, House Masters or even their tutors. A number of students living on DeWolfe Street first heard of the incident from a community announcement placed in the window of the Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin-Robbins on Bow Street. The administration has the ability to send out an e-mail to each and every student of Harvard College, either directly or by issuing a mandate to House Masters. Administrators can also ensure students have easy access to information deemed necessary for dissemination by placing links to into telnet login screens.

Perhaps the scripting of an official statement took time or there was a breakdown in the chains of communication. Whatever the reason or excuse, the entire student body should be made aware of something of this severity as soon as administratively possible. Knowing what is happening in our community and where we can safely walk home at night is more important than what songs we cannot download or any survey to fill out.

We want to hear from our administration, but we need to see our police officers. A campus needs to not only be safe but also appear protected. An increase in both the presence and visibility of Harvard University and Cambridge police officers would be a reassuring sight. During the late evening to early morning hours, it seems logical to err on the side of being overstaffed rather than understaffed, the current state of affairs. Also, though we certainly enjoy security officers who are known to be friendly personalities in the Houses, we need guards to be imposing when necessary to those who may threaten our community.

While the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) will take students home at any hour, not a very well known fact, it can be awkward to ride home in a police car and inconvenient to wait if HUPD is especially busy at the time. It is commonly argued that a 24-hour on-call shuttle service is prohibitively expensive. Let us place the cost issue into perspective: the National Institute of Justice estimates that incidents of sexual assault cost at least $127 billion every year, approximately $508 a citizen. Even if that figure was not so astronomical, we as a society cannot afford sexual assault. Neither can Harvard. Phones with direct lines to Harvard’s Shuttle Service should be installed outside all libraries, Houses and major buildings on campus and shuttles should be on call throughout the night.

Another means of increasing safety on campus is 24-hour universal keycard access. House affiliation means nothing when a dangerous situation presents itself to a student who lives in the Quad but happens to be down by the River. The only thing of importance is finding a safe haven. Right now, the situation is Houses, Houses everywhere, yet we can’t swipe in. We are all Harvard students, and these are all our Houses. We need access to them whenever necessary.

During the stroll home, it is nearly futile to distinguish between which properties belong to Harvard and which to Cambridge. Our fellow Cambridge residents are often quick to remind us that it is their neighborhood too. For this reason, it is also their responsibility to ensure the safety of our city. The act of leaving on a porch light that adds a little illumination to a dark street is a small gesture that makes a difference. Installing motion detectors in the dark spaces between houses and business establishments is another means by which our neighbors can do their part. The City of Cambridge and Harvard University should work together to place more street lamps along the paths of the Yard and on the streets and open areas of Cambridge.

In 1879, Radcliffe College was founded as a “Harvard Annex.” Nearly 125 years later, the special interests of women on this campus should in no way be of peripheral concern. Issues involving the safety of the Cambridge neighborhood must be brought to the forefront and addressed by the University administration, the Cambridge City Council and all residents of Cambridge.

The news vans are gone. There are already fewer marked police vehicles patrolling the streets. Without the media lights and headlights, the streets are again dark. We are again afraid. Women in the Quad have been shouting for years. The women of the River are now joining in their cries. For every additional day of hesitation, there is another unsafe night we all must face. We are meant to be students, not statistics.

Olamipe I.A. Okunseinde ’04, a Crimson editor, is a psychology concentrator living in DeWolfe.

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