Libraries at the University of New Mexico are usually thought of as safe places for students to study and access resources. For some students, though, this has been anything but true.
Since the beginning of this semester, there have been at least four instances of indecent exposure — individuals intentionally exposing their genitals in public — in Zimmerman Library, only three of which were officially reported. All four of these incidents involved a subject publicly masturbating within the library.
These incidents took place on Jan. 24, Jan. 25, Feb. 11 and April 1, according to a list of incidents compiled by library staff, as well as an interview with one victim conducted by the Daily Lobo.
According to Cindy Pierard, director of Access Services at the College of University Libraries and Learning Sciences, none of these incidents involved any physical contact between subjects and students.
Two of the four incidents may have involved the same subject.
On Jan. 24, one student, who requested to remain anonymous, said she was sitting at a desk in the West Wing in Zimmerman Library when a man sat down right across from her after circling around the desks for a while.
“I thought he was just looking for a spot to study,” she said.
She described the subject as a balding, middle-aged African-American man wearing a large chain with a picture of Jesus Christ on it. Five minutes after he sat down, the student noticed that the man was touching himself sexually.
“He started to masturbate directly in front of me while looking at me,” she said.
She said she remained at her seat for a while, because she was unsure if she was actually seeing what she thought she was — she noticed that the man was focusing on her the whole time. After a few minutes, when she stood up to leave, the subject immediately got up and ran out of the building.
She said she did not report the incident to the library or the UNM Police Department, because she was not entirely sure of what she saw.
“I never had a full, clear-on view,” she said.
Despite this, she said the incident still affected her, as she has not returned to the West Wing to study since.
While she did not file a report, the student said she told library staff and security about the incident sometime in mid-March.
Front desk workers told her similar incidents had occurred in the library that semester; however, none of her information was written down by any of the workers, she said.
She also said she mentioned the incident to one of the security guards after she a saw a man who resembled the subject using one of the computers. The security guard also did not write down any of her information when she told him about the incident that occurred in January, she said.
“(The security guard) looked at me weird like I was a paranoid person,” she said. “You tell somebody and you expect it to be handled, and I don’t think it was at all.”
According to Francie Cordova, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity, security guards are subject to all University policies when they are hired, even if they work for an outside company. She said failing to report such an incident could potentially violate OEO policy.
Megan Samora, a freshman who permitted the Daily Lobo to use her name, was studying in the West Wing on Jan. 25 when she experienced a similar event.
She said that a man, whom she described as middle-aged and African-American with a bald spot and large cross necklace, was wandering around the desks. After they made eye contact and smiled at one another, the man sat down at the desk adjacent to the one Samora was sitting at.
After an hour, she said she noticed the man was moving his hand next to his stomach. She said that he must have seen her looking at him, because he then pulled back his shirt, which revealed that he was masturbating.
“I just sat there in horror,” she said. “I couldn’t find the words.”
Samora said she debated whether or not to draw attention to the man to let other people around know what was happening — the library was very crowded that day. Instead, she went straight to the security guard at the front desk and informed them of the situation. When she and the security guard returned to where the incident occurred, the man was gone.
Afterward, Samora gave the security guard a description of the subject. She said she thought a report would then be filed with UNMPD. When she called UNMPD five days later, she found that no report had been filed with the department.
“I was kind of really angry that the police station at UNM had no idea that happened,” she said.
Pierard said no report was filed, in part because Zimmerman Library never received the victim’s name.
Samora said she gave the security guard her name and email address after the incident occurred.
On Jan. 30, Samora filed a police report with UNMPD. Officer Patricia Young, an investigator with the Sexual Misconduct and Assault Response Team, was put on the case. Young said she had a meeting with library staff, where she advised them on how to better handle and prevent such situations.
Young said that if library security, which is contracted through an outside company called Securitas, called UNMPD after Samora reported the incident, it could have led to the apprehension of the subject using the description of the individual.
Securitas is contracted privately through Zimmerman Library. The officers are not allowed to physically remove any subject from the library themselves, according to Ed Padilla, Facilities Services manager.
Padilla said the security officers “are the eyes and ears of UNMPD.”
On Feb. 10, a man who matched the descriptions given by Samora and the anonymous student from the previously mentioned incidents was seen in the library, according to a list of incidents compiled by the library. Security alerted UNMPD, but when police arrived, the man had already left.
Samora said the incident greatly affected her and that she was only able to return to Zimmerman Library after discussing it with her therapist.
“I was crying for multiple days afterwards,” she said. “I just felt so dirty, like I had brought it on myself by smiling at him.”
She also said that, at the time, she did not think indecent exposure was a serious enough crime to feel sad about.
“It was around that time when #MeToo was very big,” Samora said. “You would hear all these horrible things that happened to women — I kind of felt like I didn’t have the right to feel as disturbed as I was.”
According to Pierard, there are cameras in the lobbies of each floor in Zimmerman and no cameras are placed in the rest of the building, including the West Wing. Pierard said the library is currently looking to expand cameras to this area.
Funding has been set aside for more cameras, and the library might receive some in the future, Young said.
Pierard and Padilla also said a roving guard walks through all the campus libraries to see if anything is wrong. Pierard added that student employees at the library walk around the building about once an hour.
Genevieve Romero, a freshman who works in Zimmerman Library, said problems in the library do not only include indecent exposures.
“A lot of us that work (at the library) are women, and we get people up at the desk all the time that are inappropriate or intoxicated,” Romero said.
She detailed an incident that occurred when a man repeatedly attempted to touch her while she was working. She said that, due to these incidents, the library should be closed to the general public, because “a line has been crossed.”
Pierard said she is hesitant to close the libraries to the public, because they are funded by taxpayer dollars. She also said that outside researchers often use UNM libraries for their work.
Both Samora and Romero expressed frustrations that LoboAlerts were not sent out for any of the three reported indecent exposures that took place this semester.
“We get LoboAlerts when women get groped outside the bookstore…How come we don’t get any information when it happens inside the library?” Romero said.
Byron Piatt, emergency manager at UNM, said LoboAlerts are only sent out when there is a “continuing threat” on campus that would disrupt the normal operations of the University. He said the LoboAlert system is not meant to send out alerts for every criminal act on campus.
“It’s not a news service — it’s an emergency alert service,” Piatt said.
Samora said if UNMPD had been contacted by library security and sent out a LoboAlert, the subject might have been captured.
Romero said outside groups, such as the Associated Students of the University of New Mexico, could assist in making the libraries safer for students.
The Budget Leadership Team, which a member of ASUNM sits on, recommended an increase in tuition, in part to improve campus safety. The tuition increase was approved by the Board of Regents at the Budget Summit on March 22.
According to Noah Michelsohn, director of communications for ASUNM, there are currently no plans to improve safety within the libraries, adding that of the extra capital outlay they did receive, around $50,000 will go toward LED lighting in A-Lot and around the Duck Pond.
Michelsohn said ASUNM would look into safety in the libraries “if students are highlighting that as a priority.”
Both Samora and the anonymous student said UNM could greatly improve how these instances are handled in terms of prevention and reporting.
Samora also said the nature of the crime, which was not physical, does not mean that it was not a crime.
“Even though it was just him exposing himself to me, it doesn’t lessen the effect it had,” she said. “I feel that there should be (more) done in order to protect students.”
Pierard said there is no time limit on filing a report, and students are always free to talk to library staff about any issue they may have while in the library. She also said she apologizes if any student felt that their voice was silenced.
Kyle Land is a news editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kyleoftheland.