College imposters raise questions of campus security
Episodes reveal need for stricter safety measures on Wellesley campus
Published: Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 20, 2012 16:09
Blending in as part of the student body at any college isn’t difficult. Attend classes, appear at student events and join study groups in dorm halls. Of course, if you’re not actually a registered student, then you might be breaking a few trespassing laws.
At Columbia University, 26-year-old Birva Patel had been posing as an undergraduate student since December 2011. She went unnoticed by the authorities until several Columbia students reported her for suspicious behavior in late August.
Patel had pretended to be a third-year biomedical engineering student in December. She was seen inside various campus buildings, sleeping in lounges or walking aimlessly down the hallways without attending any classes.
Without a Columbia ID or key, Patel entered the buildings by asking other unsuspecting students to open the doors for her, or simply by blending in with a large crowd. Although Patel was never seen in an actual residence hall, students reported seeing her sleeping in bushes and on subways.
At the beginning of the fall semester, she began using the identity Rhea Sen and started approaching students and trying to befriend them, particularly freshmen. The interactions gradually turned into harassment. She sent several students profane texts and Facebook messages.
In one incident, Patel purposely got two students lost in New York City. The two Columbia freshmen were on their way to the Bronx Zoo as part of an orientation event; Patel showed them a fake text she claimed was from the orientation leader and urged them to get off at an earlier stop to take a bus. The three wound up far from their intended destination and were only able to find their way back with the help of a police officer.
This wasn’t the first time an imposter infiltrated a college. Back in 2007, Azia Kim pretended to be a full-time student at Stanford for eight entire months. Kim attended classes, snuck into dining halls at meal-time and even managed to live in a dorm with trusting sophomores.
Since Kim, like Patel, didn’t have a key or ID card, she was forced to climb through the window to her dorm. Kim was eventually found out when resident advisors grew suspicious.
Both Columbia and Stanford have an ID card system similar to that of many other colleges, including Wellesley. While the card keys do a great job deterring some unwanted guests, the system is clearly not foolproof.
On any college campus, it’s far too easy for someone to go unnoticed. In the light of incidents like the Virginia Tech shooting, student imposter incidents should be the source of great concern. Colleges should refocus on their campus security and make it the top priority. While Kim and Patel—fortunately—did not cause any serious harm, they could easily have been dangerous people with malicious intentions. In fact, Patel is currently arrested and has been placed under custody for trespassing.
While gated campuses may not be viable for every college, especially those situated downtown, there are ways of tightening security and protecting the overall safety of registered students. For example, one or two metal detectors placed at main campus buildings would be beneficial for large, urban universities.
Similarly, security cameras could also be implemented in most colleges. With today’s technology, dozens of possibilities for prevention exist, but more attention must be given to such matters before anything of substance can be implemented.
Of course, the easiest and most effective way to strenghten campus security is to encourage students to remain alert. If a student sees anyone who doesn’t belong, or if their gut reaction tells them that something is not quite right, they must report it to the campus police. The worst thing that can happen is they commit a silly mistake.