September 29, 2014


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On a late night last February, I had just finished my reading and was unwinding with a game of Candy Crush in my bedroom. I hadn’t turned the lights off yet when I heard a rattling at the back door, which exited to the outside from my bedroom. I assumed that I had once again forgotten to latch the screen, so I reluctantly got out of bed to secure it.  When I opened the back door, instead of seeing a swinging screen door, I saw the body of a large man trying to get into my bedroom. I screamed, slammed and locked the door, and ran into my living room to call 911. Ithaca Police came within 15 minutes, but they did not catch the intruder. A few weeks later, after a stressful search, I finally moved into a new apartment where I felt safer.

I wish I could say that my situation was unique and that break-ins hardly ever happen around Cornell. However, after my experience, I heard from many of my peers who had gone through similar frightening encounters. We all see more crime alert emails than we would like, but many off-campus incidents are not even captured in those emails. The issue of safety is a more pressing one than many students think.

Don’t get me wrong, we are lucky to live in an idyllic and quiet town where few bad things happen. However, Ithaca is still a city, and we as students are targets for crime.  Because of my scary experience, and because I believe the safety of Cornell students should be among the University’s highest priorities, I have been vocal about improving student safety in my role as student trustee.

In my opinion, improved student safety requires, among other measures, taking a hard look at Collegetown and considering the various roles the University could play in improving our neighborhood. There are no easy solutions to improve the economy of Collegetown, to stop the break-in attempts, and to create affordable and habitable off-campus housing options. But I think we should start by shining the spotlight on these issues and discouraging the tendency to simply throw our hands up in the air because the issues seem too big to tackle. I hope this will allow for big ideas relating to Collegetown to be heard and considered.

In the meantime, it is important for students to have the information they need to find safe housing options and the knowledge they need to keep themselves and their homes safe once they move in. This information is available online and has been disseminated by email, through the recent Bear Walk community event, and other means. However, I think it’s worthwhile to continue to share this important information through as many avenues as possible, including this column.

First, it is important for students to conduct research before renting an apartment off-campus:

Next, as the Cornell Police and the Ithaca Police indicate in their Safety Tips, once you have moved into your apartment or dorm:

Lastly, know who to call if you are the victim of a crime or otherwise need help.  In an emergency, don’t hesitate to call 911. For other important numbers, please visit the caring community website.

Having lived in three different college towns, I know how easy it is to assume that you are safe and that nothing can harm you. But, unfortunately, I have now experienced firsthand that students are often lured into a false sense of security. While improving the overall safety of our community may eventually require some major changes, you can also do your part to keep yourself safe by being aware of the risks and taking appropriate steps to deter someone from harming you or your property.

Annie O’Toole is a second year law student at Cornell Law School and the graduate student-elected trustee. She can be reached at [email protected]. Trustee Viewpoint appears on alternate Tuesdays this semester.