Behind Closed Doors

Campus security officials tag locker rooms and restrooms the bane of their jobs: students and administrators perceive danger here, yet the privacy that causes this anxiety also prevents officers from monitoring activities.

Even Chief Oliver J. Clark at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), who serves as president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, admits he hasn’t found a solution that works 100 percent of the time. “If someone has, I’d like to hear it!” he says.

But while there’s no magic bullet, Clark and fellow law enforcement officers find measurable success using a simple formula: first secure the entire building, then zero in on specifics.

Locker Rooms

Clark identifies theft as UIUC’s predominant locker room complaint -- his files reveal reports of stolen jewelry, credit cards and wallets left in unattended cubicles. Occasionally, someone breaks into a locked cubicle to steal its contents, but those claims are few and far between. Campuses across the country report the same nonviolent trend, with vandalism running second.

That’s why a majority of campuses require an identification process even to enter these athletic buildings. For instance, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) implemented three electronic ID card readers in the lobby of its du Pont Athletic Center in February 2001 -- one to allow access to Rockwell Cage, another to the stairway door leading to the athletic offices and the third to the locker areas.

“It is not our intention to inconvenience people,” says MIT Director of Athletics Candace Royer. “On the contrary, we’re trying to help improve access to those people who have reserved the right to be in our facilities by virtue of their student status or by purchasing the card.” Ditto Arizona State University, which installed card readers at its PE East women’s locker room and Western Michigan University, which built a card access system into its new 240,000-sq.-ft. Gary Center.

“But clearly, just because you’re a student and allowed into a gym doesn’t mean you’re not a criminal,” says Dave Saddler, associate executive director for the Security Industry Association. “That’s why we need to layer the approaches.” Many administrators choose to start with the card reader system itself, designing programs that allow men in one locker room and women in the other. But remember, the smarter the device, the more its cost.

The University of Pennsylvania supplements its card readers with security officers stationed at locker room doors during big events. Meanwhile, Clark says setting up a human monitor at the towel rooms of his busiest gymnasiums does the trick at UIUC. Hiring a warm body gets expensive on an annual basis, Saddler warns. He recommends requiring police officers to patrol the halls as part of their regular beat if money is tight.

Once inside the locker room, savvy universities install emergency telephone systems as a way to hold students’ hands since they can’t keep watch in person. It also provides an alternative answer to the pressure to place closed-circuit cameras here to catch criminal acts. “You’d think this is simple: No cameras in locker rooms. But we had requests for this, especially after a series of thefts,” says Thomas Seamon, the former vice president for public safety at the University of Pennsylvania and now an independent law enforcement and security consultant in the Philadelphia area. “I’ve seen installations in locker facilities, and the case law in the manufacturing world is already interesting.”

The University of Pennsylvania did infrequently incorporate a miniature closed-circuit system inside specific lockers to catch thieves, “but that’s much different from scanning an area where people may be partially disrobed,” Seamon adds. And cameras do contribute real-time, valuable information as to who’s attempting to break in unauthorized doors, Saddler reminds. (Not to mention strong evidence preserved on tape for future prosecutions.) However, position them on the building’s exterior or, at the most, fixed outside the locker room doors so they can’t see beyond the doorframe. “Essentially you don’t want that camera to face into that locker room in any way,” he says.

When you use cameras, state at the building’s entry points that this area is under surveillance. “You’re not hiding cameras -- you want everyone to know they’re in place for safety and to catch law breakers,” says Saddler. Be careful how strongly you word this assurance, however. The U.S. Department of Justice warns schools against leading students to believe the video camera’s presence means they will be rescued if attacked. That’s why many administrators steer clear of dummy cameras -- the deterrent isn’t worth the risk.


When Seamon joined the University of Pennsylvania, he inherited a hodge-podge system of duress alarms in the bathrooms of the school’s 160 buildings. Installed nearly 20 years ago in response to a couple of sexual assaults, some devices were buttons, others pull cords, most on different Legacy systems and all prone to false activation. Seamon couldn’t replace the alarms with access card readers, since restrooms fall under a public domain category, so he surveyed similar campuses for guidance.

He discovered no other university felt this level of concern for restrooms. Neither did large corporations. Medical facilities mirrored Penn’s direction, but they were motivated by safety concerns rather than a fear of crime. His own statistical reports didn’t substantiate the expense. “But it’s an emotional discussion,” he explains. “Our university’s history shows concern for students to take extra steps that other facilities don’t. There were factions at Penn that wanted an alarm in every stall of every bathroom.”

Using the “secure large, then narrow” strategy, Seamon recommended administration first invest money to secure buildings from unauthorized entry. Next, he standardized the duress alarms, selecting a switch that requires forceful activation -- students couldn’t set off false alarms by brushing against it. And they installed these alarms near the door. “Whether it’s a crime problem or medical emergency, the normal human reaction is to head for the exit,” he points out. In large restrooms, Penn added a second duress switch at the opposite wall, and included these alarms in every handicapped stall.

Today’s wireless technology means universities can avoid hard-wiring in retrofit projects, which keeps the cost down. And according to the U.S. Justice Department, the most common choice for schools, Penn’s panic-button type of alarm, can be as simple as a system to engage a dedicated phone line that sends a prerecorded message specifying its location to a designated station. The cost amounts to a few hundred dollars and the ongoing cost of a phone line.

“Clearly you can’t secure every inch of your campus,” says Saddler. “But the message to students is that, when you combine all the technology with their attitude of not being a victim (looking out for themselves by not wearing expensive jewelry to the gym or to class), you’ll have a safer environment.”