Library laptop thefts expose security gaps

By Patrick Malloy

Macalester might seem like a safe bubble amidst the dangers of a city, but the theft of nine laptops from a locked library cabinet three weekends ago and a rash of personal laptop thefts has raised questions about building security.

Buildings on campus lack alarm systems. Administrators say that such systems would be unrealistic due to high costs and logistical reasons.

“We want to be able to provide a high level of access,” said David Wheaton, Vice President for Administration and Finance, who oversees building management.

“People are coming and going 24 hours per day,” Terry Gorman, Assistant Director of Facilities Management and head of security, said.

Professors and students are often in buildings late into the night working on projects, and for that reason, putting alarm systems on outside doors would not be a feasible option for improving building security.

No buildings currently have alarm systems for the entire building. Some areas, like the computer labs in Olin Rice, do have alarms that activate after the area closes.

Gorman said he does not foresee major projects to improve nighttime security. Hiring front door guards is a cost that the college is not willing to incur. Also, Gorman said, stationing guards on campus would present an image problem.

“It’s a prison look and people aren’t happy about that,” he said.

There are a small number of cameras on campus to deter theft and identify thieves, Gorman said. They might be a feasible way to improve security, he said, but there are no plans to install more at this point. So far, security footage has not yet led to any arrests in the laptop case.

Even in the absence of administrative initiatives to further secure campus buildings, students may, for the time being, be changing their habits and not leaving laptops unattended in public places. Signs have popped up throughout the library, advising students to do just that.

“I brought my computer outside with me for the first time when I smoked today,” Emily Ayoob ’07 said on Wednesday while leaving the library. “I took it for granted before that it wouldn’t get stolen.”

“I have a computer lock now, so I’ll probably use that next time I go to the library,” Ali Nystrom ’10 said.

During the first two months of school, Nystrom said she did not lock her computer if she left it for short periods of time in the library.

Administrators have discussed a variety of ideas for impoving the security, but have not approved any as of yet.

Security guards could lock most outside doors, but then people would begin propping other doors open, Gorman says. Facilities Management could install alarms that alert security when doors are open for a certain amount of time. Those are costly, and because people often prop doors open to bring equipment into buildings, they could go off frequently.

Gorman and other administrators are hesitant to implement security measures that would make it more difficult to access buildings. Many do not believe doing so is necessary.

“There just isn’t very much crime on this campus,” Wheaton said.

Improvements on dorm security, another likely target for thieves, may come sooner. Over the summer, Facilities Management installed security screens on the windows of first-floor rooms. The screens make it more difficult to enter a room through the window.

Currently, Facilities Management is in the process of installing new locks on all dorm room doors. Doty, Bigelow, Turck, Wallace and some rooms in Kirk have already received the new locks. Dupre doors will receive new locks in the near future.

Gorman explained that administrators had discussed front door guards for dorms, but rejected the idea for the same reasons they did for other buildings: the cost is simply too high. To improve security, Gorman suggests that students lock their doors whenever they leave.

“We look at [dorm rooms] as apartments. You look at it like a bedroom,” said Gorman, adding that he hopes to change students’ perceptions of their dorm rooms.

An often-discussed threat to dorm security is tailgating, when someone follows a student with a key into the building.

Peg Olson, Director of Residential Life, discussed how the College is trying to reduce tailgating.

“We ask the RAs at the beginning of the year to discuss it with their residents,” Olson said. Olson said that it is the student’s responsibility to prevent this.

“It’s about students taking initiative,” she said. Residential Life tells students to ask people who they do not recognize for IDs before letting them into the dorm.

There have been no robberies reported in the dorms this school year.

The College is exploring the use of key cards for entering buildings, Olson said, but that would be many years in the future if the college ever implements the system.