Sneaking into dorms and houses remains a stubborn security issue
I recall a mission I once had. The target was Otero.
After a late brunch around 1 p.m. one day, I approached the door, my motions jerky and tense. The door swung open as one of the residents emerged, her head barely visible as she carried a large basket of laundry.
I took a step toward the closing door. Without a second glance, she stuck out her foot a bit, stalling the door just enough for me to grab the handle and sneak into the building, the home of more than 60 freshmen.
It had taken fewer than five seconds to penetrate the dorm. No alarms.
Today, on a campus where the relative ease of sneaking into dorms is known widely–and where one of the country’s most high-profile dorm security breaches happened three years ago–Student Housing and the Department of Public Safety (DPS) continue to work on tightening campus security.
Police say the campus feels safe to many; it’s not uncommon to see students up and out at odd hours.
“We see a lot of people out walking or biking in the early morning and at night,” said Lt. Rich Cinfio of DPS. “Unless you feel safe and secure, you wouldn’t be out by yourself.”
The department works closely with Student Housing to ensure a safe campus for its residents. One security measure was the implementation of a card-access system in many dorms.
By 2007, “Student Housing’s Stern Hall was selected as the pilot program for the University, and was completed successfully,” wrote Rodger Whitney, executive director of Student Housing, in an e-mail to The Daily. “Since then all of our residences which house freshmen, as well as the majority of our large residences, have been converted to card access.”
The premise of the system is to keep strangers from infiltrating student residences. To supplement the card-access system, dorm alarms also were installed, activating when doors are intentionally or accidentally propped open.
Yet there is a limit to the effectiveness of the card system. Students often use a tactic called “tailgating,” or following another resident into a dorm, which can potentially compromise the safety of the entire dorm, police say.
“Think of [opening the door] as the front door of your house,” said Bill Larson, a spokesperson for DPS. “Except, of course, it’s not just your house but everybody else’s in the dorm, too. You wouldn’t let anyone tailgate through your front door, would you?”
Student Housing encourages students to be vigilant. “We empower residents to approach strangers in their residence and to ask who they are there to visit,” Whitney said, “or to ask them to leave if they are not an authorized visitor. It is also important that students limit their guests to people they know.”
Another step that students can take is to familiarize themselves with their fellow residents and distinguish them from strangers, police say.
“What it boils down to: people need to trust their intuition,” Cinfio said. “If someone looks suspicious, then contact security. Another good way to [prevent] strangers from getting in is to get to know everyone in your dorm, or at least become familiar with their faces.”
This strategy appears to work well for smaller residences, such as Row houses or Suites, where the tailgating method may not work quite as well as in dorms due to less foot traffic.
Because the campus is perceived to be so safe, lapses in safety protocol are commonplace.
“It will happen,” Larson said. “Last year, two people snuck into a dorm. It was a clever ploy. They were wearing Stanford sweatshirts so everyone in the dorm assumed that they were students.”
Major breaches in security, such as the infamous incident in 2007 when Azia Kim spent eight months successfully tricking students into thinking she was a Stanford student, are rare.
“The incident a few years ago where an individual posed as a student was an unusual one,” Whitney said. “And while the situation did provide the University-at-large with a reminder of the necessity that everyone involved work together toward security, it did not significantly impact our processes.”
Authorities urge the Stanford community to take initiative in maintaining security and to think twice before letting an unknown person through the door with a wordless, perfunctory glance.
“Even the best systems are defeated,” Larson said. “What happened several years ago was a lapse in protocol, but not necessarily a lapse in security. Everyone needs to be reminded from time to time to follow the protocol.”
Clarification: Azia Kim lived in Kimball Hall during the fall and winter quarters of 2006-2007. She lived in Okada for part of spring quarter that year. The story has been revised to reflect this clarification.