Reported voyeurism under investigation at Conn College

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New London — City police and Connecticut College are investigating five reports of voyeurism within residence hall bathrooms, including one reported just one day after spring semester classes began.

In emails sent to students, college officials said the victims, all women, said cellphone cameras were pointed at them without their consent while they were preparing to shower. Two reports came in October, one in November, one in December and one on the night of Jan. 23.

One incident was reported in Morrisson House, the other four in Plant House. Both dormitories house students of all grade levels and genders and have “gender-inclusive” bathrooms, meaning anyone can use them.

Most of the bathrooms have three shower stalls. A changing area with a stall door separates each curtained shower from the main bathroom.

All five victims said they were in the changing area when they saw a cellphone camera above or below the stall door.

While some of the women described the phones, hands or shoes they saw, none of the women saw the perpetrator.

Speaking by phone Wednesday, police Capt. Brian Wright said he couldn't say whether police believe more than one person is responsible for the voyeurism.

He said the investigation has been difficult, in part because any student with an active college identification card can access any dormitory on campus.

"It would be great if there were records of who was in each bathroom around the time of the incident, but unfortunately we don't have that," he said.

Wright said police have received some records from the college but the process has been slow. He wouldn't elaborate on the records received.

Wright said he repeatedly has been in touch with some of the victims' parents, most of whom are frustrated.

"Obviously this is a very concerning series of incidents," he said. "We are doing our best to work with the college to find some resolve."

The college, meanwhile, is doing an internal investigation under Title IX, a law that prohibits sex-based discrimination within educational institutions that receive federal funding.

Under college policy, an external investigator partners with an internal, trained investigator to address each Title IX complaint.

Sarah Cardwell, senior associate dean of student life, is listed as the deputy Title IX coordinator who handles complaints involving student respondents.

In a Wednesday email, National Media Relations Manager Tiffany Thiele said investigators with an independent firm are looking into the incidents on behalf of the college. She didn't name the firm or say how many investigators, but said the investigators have "extensive experience in both the public and private sectors."

Since the first incident, Thiele said the college has added privacy curtains in one of the residence halls and increased Campus Safety patrols. Thiele said the college also is meeting individually with students who live in the affected halls.

"The safety and security of our students is our highest priority," Thiele said on behalf of Conn. "The college has repeatedly informed all community members that this is criminal conduct, and it intends to pursue criminal charges."

Take Back Our Showers

After the fourth incident was reported in December, students Devon Stahl and Grace Amato, who said email updates from administrators were vague and infrequent, formed a group called Take Back Our Showers.

“I was noticing that with my friends, and even with people I was not that close to, the topic would come up a lot,” said Stahl, a senior. “But there was almost no official communication around the issue, which created a feeling that the administration didn’t want us to talk about it."

So Stahl and Amato, a sophomore, bought a shower curtain, spray-painted the words, “Take Back Our Showers | We Demand Real Action,” and hung it outside the College Center at Crozier-Williams, a hub for student activity.

They also created a Facebook page and pointed students to a template they could use to email administrators about the voyeurism.

The point was not to attack administrators but to pressure them, Amato said, and apparently it worked.

On Dec. 11, the day after Stahl and Amato hung their sign, Dean of the College Jefferson Singer said in an email to students that he had received “a number of messages in the last 24 hours” about the shower incidents. He invited students to an open forum later that day, where deans gave more details and answered students’ questions.

During the forum, Stahl and Amato said the deans outlined the difficulties in identifying a suspect without a description. They also discussed potential solutions and the downsides of each.

Cameras outside the bathroom, for example, might deter a perpetrator but could mean less freedom for residents. Key card readers ideally would show who used the bathroom, but students could use one another’s cards or hold the door open for their peers. Walled-off shower stalls could prevent the voyeurism but also may cause mold problems. Bathrooms separated by gender wouldn’t physically stop anyone from entering and could make some members of the LGBTQ community uncomfortable.

Stahl and Amato, who have since taken down the spray-painted shower curtain, said Monday that they would like to see a short-term fix, such as ventilated barriers that prevent people from reaching into the changing areas. Stahl said the idea came up during the open forum but she got the impression administrators weren’t considering it.

“It’s great (they’re) thinking about long-term solutions,” Stahl said. “But when I shower tonight, there still isn’t anything in place for me to feel safe.”

Stahl said she's pleased the email about the most recent incident contained more details than past emails, but going forward she hopes administrators include students when discussing potential solutions.

Amato said she’s concerned the apparent lack of action by administrators makes the crimes seem less serious than they are.

Under state law, voyeurism is a Class C or D felony, depending on a person’s criminal history.

“We feel it keeps happening because people think it’s funny or at least think it’s not serious,” Amato said. “If it seems like the college is not doing much, then it feels like it’s not a big deal.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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