Thanks to readers who alerted me to the 17 August demonstration on the Carleton (Ottawa) University campus to protest the university's stance in the case of a woman science student who was assaulted while working late in a lab in 2007. In response to a lawsuit filed by the student, the university noted that the "victim failed to prevent the assault", which, according to reports, was quite violent. This blame-the-victim response by the university is disturbing and unacceptable.
More info on the case is here, including links to news stories and legal documents.
As someone who often works late at night on campus, security is a major concern for me. I also worry about my students and others in my group who work late on campus. I have touched on this topic a few times, including:
- the time I became extremely upset when a tech set up a webcam that anyone with an internet connection could use to watch researchers in a lab 24/7, creating an efficient way for people to see when a woman was working alone in the lab late at night or on weekends. I objected in a rather vehement way and the tech (who had not thought about the implications of the webcam and sincerely thought it would be cool) disconnected the system.
- when a scary incident at my home made me reflect on security issues in general and how to teach my daughter about being safe without living in constant fear.
- when a campus police officer who came to apprehend a strange, thieving, lying person who had been giving me trouble on and off for months blamed me for the situation because I leave my office door open when I am in the office during the day on weekdays.
According to an Ottawa newspaper article about the Carleton case:
The university alleges the science student chose to remain on the premises alone and chose not to lock the door to the laboratory in which she was working. She knew, or ought to have known, the steps she could take to notify the safety department of her intention to work late on her own, Carleton says.
There are many disturbing things about those statements and other aspects of the incident, including:
- the statement that the student chose to remain on the premises. Apparently the professor left at 11:30 pm and the student stayed on. There's no way to know how much choice was involved in the student's staying to work. Even if the professor didn't explicitly say "You must stay here and keep working or else", the student may have felt the need to stay and continue working for any number of reasons common to students involved in research. Choice isn't really the right word to use in the context of a student's decision about how much/when to work. As a professor, I choose to work at night in my office because it's the best way for me to get done all the things I need to get done. Does that really mean that my university has no responsibility for my safety when I am working in a campus building at night?
- the student chose not to lock the door of the laboratory. Why did the lab not have a door that automatically locked when closed? I work in a locked room when I am on campus at night but it is not possible to spend 100% of my time in a locked room: I have to get to and from the locked room when I arrive and depart, and I may need to travel from one locked room to another. My expectation, therefore, is that the building will be secure so that I can be safe when walking in the corridors at night, but I know from long (but fortunately not tragic) experience that this expectation is not always met.
- The student should have notified a university safety department of her intention to work late on her own. Does Carleton U really have a safety department that checks regularly on all people who inform them in advance that they will be working late? Presumably there are students and others working late in most science labs most days, as well as in other departments, so the fact that a student was working late in a chemistry lab should not be such an unusual event that requires a special call in advance to a safety department.
Administrators in my department know that people (students, postdocs, faculty) work late on campus on a regular basis. Do we each need to tell them -- or a university office -- every time we work late on campus? If that is indeed the rule at some universities, perhaps every student, researcher, and faculty should call the relevant office every time they plan to work late at night or on a weekend. How would the university deal with the hundreds of calls? What would they do with the data? Perhaps some universities have no idea how many people are working late in campus buildings. In an ideal world, information about the number of people working in campus buildings at night would be used to improve security plans and equipment on campus rather than solidify a system that allows universities to blame the victim if someone is attacked while working late.
[Note: I'm not really back yet. Regular posts will probably resume later this week though]
8 hours ago