By: The Commentator Editorial Board  | 

Students’ Safety and Security Must Be YU’s Top Priority

A university’s chief responsibility is to ensure the safety and security of its students and staff on campus at all times. Sadly, however, a cursory review of recent incidents shows that Yeshiva University has failed to live up to this obligation time and again.

From elevator free-falls to entrapments requiring rescues to December’s break-in on the Beren Campus, student safety and security has clearly been lacking across the board. Every student feels the brunt of dysfunctional and unsafe elevators, and many Beren residents were rightfully confused and shaken up following last month’s break-in to the Schottenstein Residence Hall. The lack of transparency that the university has displayed toward its students throughout these incidents has only exacerbated these problems.

It would appear government agencies concur as well, judging by the litany of serious fire and elevator code violations the university has been issued in the past few years. From major safety violations and defective elevator equipment to inoperative fire communication systems, YU has been hit with tens of thousands of dollars in fines by the city for safety violations.

This state of affairs is unacceptable and must be fixed now. The safety of students and staff is on the line.

That starts with acknowledging the problem. Take last month’s midnight break-in to Schottenstein, for instance. Not only did many students not even recognize the sound of the dormitory fire alarm, but a significant number of residents had no idea how to react. Students were left in the dark, and communication efforts were an utter failure. However, rather than take responsibility for the lackluster response to the incident, the university instead attempted to brush the matter over and made a bad situation worse. Indeed, the university did not address the full extent of the incident until long after the FDNY issued a press release to the media, which was picked up by national news outlets. Students and their parents complained that they had found out about the break-in from national media outlets as opposed to official university correspondence. It is difficult to believe that the university first learned that fires were set in the dormitory through the FDNY’s news release. A more plausible explanation was that the administration felt that there was simply no need to be fully transparent with YU’s students and community.

This is not the first time communication on matters of safety and security has been an issue. YU’s insufficient response to the multiple swastikas etched into the YU-owned Laurel Hill Terrace apartments and a nearby tree on the Wilf Campus demonstrated that notifying students about critical safety and security issues has long been an afterthought for the administration. Students more than not often learn about serious security incidents from their peers rather than from the university itself. If YU is truly concerned with students being unduly alarmed by such matters, it would be especially prudent for YU to engage in honest and forthright communication rather than dismissively apologize after the fact in carefully worded, defensive statements. Attempts to downplay serious security incidents while hoping they won’t be noticed by students are counterproductive, serving only to sow further distrust within the student body towards an administration that apparently views transparency as merely an afterthought.

Likewise, with respect to campus elevators, rather than acknowledge the dangerous state of disrepair they are in, the university has instead elected to take a “thoughts and prayers” approach, offering nothing but lip service as firefighters are called for elevator rescue after elevator rescue. Moreover, in response to prior Commentator investigations into YU’s myriad fire, building and elevator code violations, the university offered lackluster responses to explain their rap sheet of summonses, claiming that they are “minor,” inevitable and “typically for non-safety issues” when several citations have been issued for “immediately hazardous” conditions including failure to fix non-functional safety equipment and defective fire communication infrastructure. Will it take a calamity for the university to learn its lesson?

Only once the university takes responsibility for the dangerous situation on campus can solutions be promulgated and safety bolstered. Safety and security are not mere luxuries — they are imperatives. Concrete steps can and must be taken to protect our student body from harm and ensure their safety and security in and out of the classroom and residence halls. YU should take a lesson from past mishaps that attempts to downplay and brush over issues are not conducive to student safety. 

The university must also learn from its past failures across multiple realms to ensure that the mistakes of the past do not repeat themselves. New York law mandates public and private universities alike to hold at least three fire drills each academic year, including at least one between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1. Additionally, colleges with dormitories are required to hold at least one additional drill after sunset but before sunrise to ensure students are prepared for situations such as the Schottenstein scare. Meanwhile, public and private high schools alike are required to hold at least a dozen drills, including four simulated lock-downs. Not only must these drills be held, but perhaps it would be prudent for the university to go above the letter of the law and ensure that lock-down drills are held as well.

It’s an open secret that the university’s elevators are well beyond their life expectancy. An elevator technician from Schindler, the elevator maintenance company YU contracts with, was recently overheard commenting that the university’s elevators should have been replaced 15 to 20 years ago, but were not due to cost-savings efforts. The technician added that the expense of maintaining the old elevators — coupled with the tens of thousands of dollars in fines the university has been issued — has exceeded the cost of replacing the aging elevators to begin with.

Not only have students been traumatized by “free-falls” — a dangerous situation that has occurred numerous times over the past few months — but malfunctioning elevators have been so hazardous in recent weeks that 911 has been called multiple times and FDNY firefighters have been summoned to respond and rescue trapped students. With numerous elevators out of service and countless accidents waiting to happen, it is clear that steps must be taken to fix this broken system and ensure the safety of students and staff alike.

The time for finger-pointing and mismatched explanations was yesterday, and the time for action is now. It would be tragic to let these moments pass without developing a comprehensive plan to ensure that the safety and security woes of yesterday never happen again. Our YU community deserves no less.