Monday, August 17, 2009

Asking 4 It

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]


drjenbren said...

I postdocced at a university that had an online system in place for people to register when they were working late. You logged in, entered your name, staff ID, the codes for the rooms you were working in, and a contact phone number. The information was registered with university security. You logged out when you left. I don't know if it prevented any incidents and if everyone bothered to use it, but at least it was something to make you feel a bit safer.

Kea said...

Hmph. I must have spent a good fraction of my life wandering science department corridors in the middle of the night on my own - mostly in secure buildings with regular security patrols. I'm sure the only reason that I've escaped such an assault is that I am actually downright scary myself.

In my experience, even at universities with supposedly good security measures, all sorts of people are let into buildings by staff/students who (a) hold the door open for people (b) let their 'friends' or 'relatives' in. This always bothered me, not because I was worried about my safety, but because it accentuates the gender gap when the majority of women one encounters in the corridor are of the slender cellphone carrying, miniskirt variety.

Anonymous said...

Hm, well, we do officially have to notify the security department when we work in a building after 7pm. And preferably also tell them when we leave. Although they make the rounds around 7, so they see us then anyway. Granted though, you can't get into any of the buildings unless you have the required clearance on your card.

Chris said...

I'm afraid this problem may get worse in the near term. Severe budget cuts at our university are forcing cuts in the campus police force, and the economically depressed area that adjoins our campus has seen an increase in crime recently. I do not imagine that our situation is unique.

JaneB said...

We have to call in our presence out of hours (outside normal weekdays 8am to 7pm) to security on my campus. A 'live' list is kept (destroyed once a week). The idea is that if there is an incident (e.g. a fire), then it's definitely good to be able to say 'there are 6 people somewhere in that building'! I am happy to call in under that system - I like to think that someone knows I'm around. But the language being used by this university seems unacceptable to me - I do hope it's just stupidity not actually an attempt to blame the poor victim!

Kris said...

Actually I agree with a couple of the points but for different reasons:

the student chose to remain on the premises - this is not necessarily professor driven, but often is science driven. My students are necessarily in after hours because samples may need to be taken at 8 hour (or less) intervals (which may not always be conveniently timed and cannot be organised around or autosampled). I had other female colleagues at another university who had to come and feed her research parasites after hours _to keep them alive_. Living experiments do not run on office hours (in the real world).

the student chose not to lock the door of the laboratory: if she had, I would be immensely concerned for safety. What if she is overcome and noone can get in to rescue her? - if there is a fire? an explosion? some other accident or health problem? (but then this is why we require students to work in pairs after hours, even if many do not - even then you cannot guarantee your trusted partner turns bad ...).

Our students sign in, and in principle should inform security (but often do not in practice). I preferred the more expensive situation we had when I was a student - a permanent security officer for the building (coupled with signing in) - he would check on everyone each hour and if it was late, bring us cups of coffee/tea :)

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's really shocking. I'm really surprised that a university in Canada can get away with statements like this. Next they'll say she was "tempting the men with her feminine wiles". Scary.

Genomic Repairman said...

I have found a lot of public safety officers to be about as useful as a colon polyp. But you have to find one good one and have a working relationship with them so that they are your "in" whenever you need something. It took forever but I finally found a decent motherfucker that actually cared at my last instition. I always made sure to chat it up with the guy or invite him to lunch with me sometimes so we were on good terms as most of the officers at this institution were a bit adversarial. As far as that university, they are practicing typical CYA procedures. Hopefully the entire faculty protests, because I'd be damn ashamed to work for an institution that takes that stance on safety and attitude in response to the brutal victimization of one of their own.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Christ. This is appalling. I just paused there to think of a coherent response, but there is none. The university is trying to insulate itself against a lawsuit, but by blaming her, they're hopefully going to... no, nevermind. When it comes to blaming female victims of violence, I've stopped hoping for much a long time ago. Barstards.

Anonymous said...

This is terrible. I'm a female who has often worked late alone in the lab, including a stint in a circadian rhythm lab that required someone to take night-time samples. This meant a scheduled all-nighter in the lab alone on a regular basis for many lab members, male and female. I don't think it ever occured to the PI to schedule more than 1 person for night samples, and these were necessary to the experiments. I wouldn't have really ever called any of my late nights in a lab alone a "choice" - even for the non-circadian rhythm labs: if you want to hold on to your fellowship, you have to do what the job [read, your PI] requires.

Anonymous said...

The stance of the university is unthinkably disgraceful and unacceptable. Congratulations to the students for speaking up, I hope they achieve whatever they hope to from their demonstration. I know that the security guards at my university are technically supposed to ask students who come in on Saturdays to add their name to some mythical list that nobody has ever seen. It gets a mention every now and again but I know I've never signed it and as far as I know none of my colleagues ever have either. I suspect the world is full of such silly 'lists'.

Anonymous said...

As a graduate student I had occasional experiments that called for 24 hour shifts. While I certainly kept myself locked into rooms, there were times I had to go to the animal facility, etc and in a non-secure building I would have been an easy person to grab since I'm rather small. This is ABSURD to blame her for what happened.

I worry in my current building - while the building has key card access, I know that most of the time it is off so there really isn't any security. The best advice I have is to carry your cell phone at all times, make sure some one knows you are there, and if possible only be there when other people you trust are around.

How sad for her and for the people at the school who recognize the truth.

AsstFemaleProf said...

I think there is another huge factor here - it isn't always safe to work in a locked room. And this is especially true if you are working alone. Chemical spills, fires, falls, etc are even more dangerous if you are alone. In fact, at my university, safety training actually explicitly tells you that if you are working alone you must leave the lab door unlocked. This way, in the event that an safety "event" occurs, paramedics can reach you in a more timely fashion - they don't have to first break through the door.

Anonymous said...

re: that she should have let the safety department know (and how close is that to asking permission?) that she was working late - would they have made the same "recommendation" to a man, or blamed a man for his victimhood? methinks not.

Adrienne said...

I had not heard of this incident and also am surprised at the response of the university - or maybe I am not.

I have had to walk blocks to my car from my campus building late at night after a research or teaching-related requirement. These late nights are not choices.

More frustratingly, I have asked to walk to my car, or partly to my car, with others when it is so late and been refused! Or been told sure, only for them to leave without me. The men often disregard the concern I have to walk in the area by myself. I get lip service to being safe, but no one actually wants to help another be safe. However, my concern is always once I have left my building. I generally consider myself safe in my building, which is apparently a mistake according to your information.

Thanks for bringing this up, FSP.

Genomic Repairman said...

With our open lab design, the only lockable doors were to the TC rooms. Security was controlled by a key card access door by the elevators. If you got through that you were free to roam as you please.

lost academic said...

I am appalled, naturally, but I also want to note that a Marriott hotel is countersuing a woman who was raped at GUNPOINT in their parking deck, saying that she should have been more aware her own surroundings and acted to prevent it. This happened in front of her children.

You suppose the university realizes that the student's parents or estate has grounds to sue the university for allowing and perpetuating an environment that had her there in the first place and likely specifically looked the other way when risks were either highlighted or other crimes/assaults occurred? There's a lot of focus on campuses right now on safety for students who walk around at night or might be alone or targeted - there are plenty of safe shuttles and things like that, but there has been virtually no focus at the locations I and family have worked about worrying about what happens IN the buildings, other than theft.

We do have to often be in our labs and offices 'after hours'. It is the necessary environment to conducting our work at all in many cases. Just because the administration and/or security wants to deny that doesn't make it false, and doesn't change the need.

Anonymous said...

Wow. That is so appalling. My fellow grad students and I work late, alone, all the time. Several days per week. It's the only way to get some of our experiments done, since the experiments take 14+ hours. I've often wished we had a security card patrolling the building, who would also walk you to your car afterwards.

Jane Doe, my heart breaks for you.

Ms.PhD said...

@FSP- thank you so much for blogging about this. I had no idea.

my reaction is basically just: holy crap. also @the marriott hotel story. holy what the hell country is this???

I think the point about working in a locked room is a good one- can be unsafe with anything remotely flammable or volatile.

Having said that, everywhere I have worked we have been told that we should not work alone due to potential injury with various kinds of chemicals or equipment. It's just plain science safety training.

Everyone violates it, of course. You have to. Otherwise you would never get anything done!

I have also always been told that women especially should not work alone at night, even with security guards and swipe cards, everyone knew it was unsafe. But it's true that some people wouldn't know to worry about it if we didn't tell them.

Isn't Ottawa generally pretty safe??

Having said that, I'm appalled that the university is trying to blame this woman for what happened to her.

I hope the protests are long, loud, and very disruptive. Carleton should go on a blacklist somewhere and women should boycott applying there. Seriously. What century, nay what millennium, are we living in???

Female Science Professor said...

That's a good point about locked labs being unsafe in other ways. I know of a situation in which a research group uses a lab that is no problem for any of them to access but that the building manager says he has trouble getting into when he needs to check something. What if there were a problem in there and the building staff needed to get in? They don't seem to be leaping into action to solve their access problem. Should the professor who supervises the lab tell students and others that they shouldn't work in that room when it is locked because that is not safe?

Janice said...

It made the national and Canadian university news when it happened. We worked to improve our graduate student's security since many of them have a habit of working until late in the evening in our computer lab.

The issue about auto-locks on offices was a big concern. Since our students tend to leave the door open to the computer lab when they work, an automatic lock would make it possible for an assailant to come in and lock the door behind, making it harder for anyone else to intervene until campus security came. So that was another vote against doors that automatically lock when closed.

As far as I know, my university has NO tracking system for after-hours researchers. Having been on campus until 10 or 11 many a night, myself, no one's ever asked me about that and I've only seen campus security a very few times in the hallways, not because they're uncaring, but because it's a big place!

I wish this young woman some good fortune in getting resolution for her case. It sounds as if her scientific career is effectively over and that's a very sad thing.

weak dead: fight! said...

"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"

There's a world between saying she didn't know about the steps she could take, and saying, she consciously chose to being attacked (aka. she was asking for it).

This may be the tip of the iceberg: all attacks are decisions we chose because we didn't actually protect ourselves against it. So you can't demand. I'm sick of it all.

myytinmurtaja said...

I think both the University and the Marriott Hotel are indeed sending a very clear message to all women:

"What, did you think you are actual human beings? How silly of you!"

I'm so pissed off.

Anonymous said...

Like the other commenters, I'm appalled and disgusted with the University's blame the victim mentality.

However, what University actions would have realistically prevented the assault? A security guard coming by every hour might have run into the assailant, but could have easily missed it. If the university tried to put CCTV inside each lab we'd probably all object and anything short of that wouldn't have caught it in time. Maybe a panic button in each room?

EliRabett said...

Never thought about it but panic buttons are a great idea, maybe even like the sort of systems that old folk living alone use.

Here is an example

We all could use something like this when working alone in a lab and you only would need one or two for a group since if many people are working late they can cover for each other. They only cost about $30 a month. When activated, the service can listen to what is happening and call police/fire/ambulance/pizza as needed

FemgineerPhD said...

Big safety tip: When you leave the lab late at night, never take a stairwell even if it's only one floor. The elevator has alarm buttons and a phone. There are so many attack situations that occur in stairwells, which are often quite sound-proof because of the fire door requirements.

I think maybe we should all consider having a check-in system with a friend if we're going to be at work particularly late. It's a logistical pain, but if you can call someone every 1 hour to say "hey, it's quiet and scary here, but I'm still ok," then maybe that would take some of the late-night edge off.

Anonymous said...

if you haven't seen yet, there is a post about recommendation letters for men and women

Anonymous said...

I do sympathize with this student, and clearly the university should not imply it was the student's fault that she was attacked. However, through the lawsuit, the student is essentially claiming it was the university's fault she was attacked. I am surprised that this hasn't come up in any of the previous comments, because I really fail to see how it can be anybody's fault, other than the attacker's!

Unknown said...

Something similar happened at my undergrad school some years ago. In that case, the student had gone in early on a Saturday. That's not your typical danger time!

As I recall, the attackers got in because one of the exterior doors of the (otherwise locked) building was not closing properly. A string of thefts from the building had happened leading up to the assault.

In that case, the university could be considered negligent for not quickly correcting the door problem, I suppose. But what if they had a work order for Monday? What if the thefts hadn't been reported to campus police (they had)? It is not clear to me where negligence ends and bad luck begins.

I don't think this student sued.

Gail Carmichael said...

( Disclaimer: I haven't read all the comments yet...)

Wow, this Carleton story sure is getting around (that's where I'm studying now). For what it's worth, I am not sure Carleton meant to come across as victim-blaming as they did. I think they at least partially wanted to offer information to others on what they could do to keep themselves safe. There was a huge safety overhaul at the school a while back (perhaps partially in response to this event). They seemed to put a lot of effort into it. How effective was it? I feel safe, but then, I always did. Foolish maybe, but the way it is.

The student was going to sue the school, but an agreement was reached (and not disclosed). The student's lawyer said that the student did not believe she was being blamed by Carleton for the incident.

Regarding locked doors: A colleague recently brought up safety concerns with our WISE group about a TA room we work in. It is in the basement of our building, has no windows (except into the neighbouring locked lab), and a big heavy door that automatically locks. If someone wanted to attack, they could simply walk in, close the door, and have their victim yell all they want but not be heard. Without the code to the door, nobody could get in and help anyway. So auto-locking doors don't sound so great to me. (Some TAs do end up alone in there, esp. if working at night in the summer to accommodate day jobs.)

More info/links here:

Gail Carmichael said...

Oh, and yes, there is a Safety Dept that, as far as I know, will come check on people as needed. There is also the Foot Patrol, volunteers who will walk with you to the car if you want.

Gail Carmichael said...

One more thing to note after reading the comments (sorry for leaving so many!): I assume the protest was timed because this incident had raised its head again, but it's not even what it was mainly about. Students want a Sexual Abuse Support Centre or something like that, and it has not yet materialized, hence the rally.

lost academic said...

@anon from 9:54 - in this country, if you as an organization with a legal responsibility to take security oriented steps to protect your employees or customers are aware of or have been informed of a situation that will, if uncorrected, foreseeably or directly lead to the harm of someone who is conducting regular activities, AND YOU CHOOSE TO DO NOTHING ABOUT IT (or are too slow for any reasonable amount of time) you are liable for that act. It's not that it happened. It's that you had the responsibility to prevent situations in which it could. There is extensive risk management advice and training to companies, universities, schools, you name it, along these lines. And I assure you, every single entity that is responsible in this way is either paranoid about that sort of prevention or will become so after such an event. This is not a world in which that sort of carelessness can be acceptable.

In this situation, there are only a handful of ways in which the college will evade being penalized. If they honestly did not know of the risk because something happened very very recently that managed to evade their preventative maintenance plans (security patrols, building locks, etc) but they had appropriate measures in place that WOULD have normally prevented or responded to such an event, then this is a horribly regrettable fluke. But it sure doesn't sound like it. I see that Carleton settled with the woman, which is the only way they can keep it sufficiently quiet. I doubt I'd send a child of mine to school there, though.

Doctor Pion said...

I am appalled, but not surprised, once the lawyers got involved. I'll get to that later. Right now, the best protest would be if every staff member and student contacted the safety office every time they are on campus after 5 pm on college business.

First, my expectation is that lab buildings must be secure. Why? Deadly chemicals, pathogens, and radiation come immediately to mind. If the rapist was not a staff member with access to the building, could it have been a terrorist or amateur pharmaceutical manufacturer seeking suitable materials for nefarious use? That is in addition to the other safety issues raised in the article.

Second, related to your other incident, our college has a policy that requires office doors be open during office hours.

Now let's look at what the lawyers got the college to say, with emphasis added by me, to identify words chosen to attack the victim by creating a misimpression of the situation.

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"

KNEW: Do they have a record of her attendance at a mandatory safety training program where they can prove she, specifically, was told about the actions each individual is expected to take as part of the shared mission of maintaining security on campus? If not, and that big fat "or" says not, they have no business making that statement.

OUGHT TO: That includes the possibility that she did not know what she could do because the college never told her. It is not her fault if the college was supposed to tell her but didn't.

COULD: There is a world of difference between "could" and "was expected to", and even in the latter case it only matters if the college can show that they WOULD have prevented the crime if she had told them she was working late.

Anonymous said...

What really gets me is situations like what Balancing Act refers to, when women ask their coworkers to walk them back to their car and get refused or stood up. You really must not care about anyone's safety if you behave like that, or think your time is impressively higher in value than her safety, and more to the point, that she FEELS safe.

Anonymous said...

Wow, how terrible. My gut reaction is that if we cannot be safe where we work, then why the heck are we slaving away for these universities? So, women are at fault for being attacked as well as creating our own glass ceilings? No wonder I often feel as though I just cannot win with academia.

Where I work, I feel quite safe now (as opposed to where I did my PhD, which had a good population of very strange people wandering out of the woods at night). Yet, this is a wake up call. I do not hold much faith in our community service patrol, but I am fortunate that I rarely work late at night anymore. I have not heard any complaints from my female students, but they are more likely to talk amongst themselves about these sorts of things than they would with me.

Azulao said...

Lemme get this straight...after this happened, they spent a buncha money beefing up security all over campus...but it's HER FAULT for not protecting herself adequately.

And let's not even *talk* about the exaggerated claims of injury due to pre-existing medical conditions! It takes some real f*ckwittery to argue that severe emotional problems following a sexual assault aren't the result of the assault.

F*ck them and the horses they rode in on.

Bagelsan said...

I really hate it when the only concrete advice offered is something like "oh, just make sure people know where you are" or "check in with a friend." (Not to point a finger at the commenters here.)

I started working in a lab just recently after moving to a new state -- more than 3 hours away from the nearest friends and family, etc. None of the other students have started yet (classes begin in Sept) so I don't really know anyone in the area. I've had to go into the lab late a few times (by myself, no one else there) and who am I supposed to check in with? The postdoc I work with knows I'm there in a general sense but she isn't keeping track of my schedule/checking her email/checking her phone 'cause she has a 6-month-old and it's midnight. She wouldn't know something had happened until the next day (if then.)

The lab itself is only part of the trip, too. I walk a few blocks in the dark, take a bus, take another bus, then walk across campus, work in the lab, and repeat the process in reverse without encountering anyone I know (or any security personnel.) There's certainly no check in with security or a log or anything like that, and my commute off-campus is somewhat sketchy anyways, so who would know at what point something happened to me?

I'm sure I'd get blamed *somehow* if something were to happen to me, though. (Hey, maybe I should've bought a car and learned karate? Or not gone to graduate school at all?) It's the default position.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing up this issue. It serves as a great reminder for people working late in labs to be more aware about their safety.

I agree with the others that the university should not be blaming the woman. But I'm upset with the fact that the university is being sued in the first place.

Granted, I do not know what their safety/security measures are, but why should the university have to pay for the attacker's crime or the fact that the police were unable to solve the case?

The attack was not the university's fault, nor was it the victim's fault. It was 100% the fault of the attacker. It was clearly, premeditated as the man was looking to assault someone alone and made sure to wipe her down and remove evidence of his fluids.

As I said before, I do not agree with the fact that the university is placing blame on the victim, but I don't think the university should have been sued in the first place.

I apologize if this offends anyone, but that is just my personal opinion.

Anonymous said...

In fairness, it seems that this woman had just as much responsibility for ensuring her own safety as the school had in doing so. Why is it that one or the other needs to bear the whole responsibility?

A 25 year old woman is an ADULT, and all adults should be expected to ensure their own safety. This isn't some little girl in a grade school somewhere.

The fact that she is suing for half a million dollars tells me a lot.

Yes, the school should provide a reasonably safe environment for the students, but the only way to completely ensure that is to make each campus a high security prison.

How about a little moderation in the presentation? How about a little fairness, from both sides?

Anonymous said...

The statements that the university made are incorrect. It certainly was not her responsibility.

However, it's not really the university's responsibility either. Negligence is when there's a reasonable expectation that something will happen and nothing is done to prevent it. Violent rapes by unknown males are very rare and there's very few situations in which it's reasonable to expect it to happen.

It's really terrible what happened to her, but it's not her fault nor the university's; it's the rapist's fault.

EliRabett said...

This is scary