Violent sex attacks have put N.Y.U. students on edge

Two young women, one of them sporting awareness-dulling ear buds, walking by the N.Y.U. Catholic Center this Tuesday.  Photo by Sam Spokony
Two young women, one of them sporting awareness-dulling ear buds, walking by the N.Y.U. Catholic Center this Tuesday. Photo by Sam Spokony

By SAM SPOKONY  |  The New York University community was rocked by two violent sexual assaults last month — the attempted rape and robbery of a 20-year-old female student in Soho on Oct. 8, and the rape of a 24-year-old female worker at the university’s Catholic Center on Oct. 31.

The attacks came just months after an N.Y.U. student group criticized the school for not providing adequate rape crisis services to students and members of the university community.

In April, the N.Y.U. Feminist Society created an online petition titled, “New York University: Create a Rape Crisis Center.” The students said there was, at that point, no place for the N.Y.U. community to receive proper medical attention, support and education regarding rape prevention and sexual assault.

“The 24-hour professional services in place are currently inadequate in addressing the needs of victims who deserve immediate medical attention as well as long-term care,” a statement from the petition read. “N.Y.U. needs to take the initiative to prevent rape culture within its community… . The needs for a Rape Crisis Center are obvious. N.Y.U. has the capability to achieve this. The N.Y.U. community deserves more.”

The petition garnered 844 online signatures, and the Feminist Society posted an update on the petition page in October saying that the group had succeeded in working together with the university’s administration to develop more comprehensive rape crisis services and a new Web site.

Margaret Smiley, president and co-founder of the Feminist Society, told this newspaper on Tuesday that the Web-site issue was resolved in September, but she added that the university still has not resolved some of the issues laid out in the petition.

Smiley said that her group still asserts that N.Y.U. does not offer proper education and awareness programs about sexual assault, and that it does not adequately collect data on instances of sexual assault.

Last week, in response to this newspaper’s inquiry, an N.Y.U. spokesperson acknowledged that the university’s Student Health Center had responded to the petition by working with those students to create the new online resource. The new online site consolidates all information about rape crisis services, including a 24-hour emergency hotline number, in one easily accessible place, the spokesperson said. However, he claimed that the new Web site was actually created “this past spring.”

“We continue to meet with the students regularly to work together to enhance our services — particularly awareness and prevention programming — as well as to ensure that the site provides the most up-to-date information about programs and services available to the N.Y.U. community for sexual assault survivors,” the spokesperson said.

Considering the sex crimes that took place on and around the university’s campus in October, that ongoing push by the N.Y.U. Feminist Society may be a very important step forward for the overall wellness of the college.

Eight days after the aforementioned Oct. 8 incident, police announced they had arrested a suspect: Glenn Williams, 28.

For Williams’s single alleged attack on the 20-year-old woman, the Manhattan District Attorney charged Williams with five felonies — attempted rape, robbery, robbery with sexual motivation, strangulation and sexual abuse.

The female student was walking on Thompson St. between Prince and Spring Sts. — about half a mile from the main N.Y.U. campus — around 1:15 a.m. on a Tuesday, when Williams allegedly snuck up behind her, punched her in the head and dragged her between two cars, police said.

He then allegedly groped the young woman violently and tried to rape her, but she fought him off and was able to escape into the lobby of a nearby building, leaving her purse and most of her personal belongings behind, police said.

Three weeks later, on the morning of Thurs., Oct. 31, a 24-year-old worker at the N.Y.U. Catholic Center — located at the corner of Thompson St. and Washington Square South, a block west from the university’s Bobst Library — was the victim of a vicious rape at the hands of an unknown man who is still at large.

The young woman, who was on her way into the building around 5:30 a.m. to begin preparing breakfast, was followed and subsequently forced inside by the unknown man, who proceeded to rip off her clothes, physically subdue her and rape her, leaving her with cuts and bruises all over her body, according to police.

The attacker, who also allegedly stole her bag and phone, then fled south on LaGuardia Place and east W. Third St., eluding police.

The unknown man is described as black, in his 20s, with a muscular build, and was wearing a dark-gray sweater, dark-colored jeans, a black fedora-style hat and an elastic bandage wrapped around his right hand, police said.

In the aftermath of the crimes — as well as the recent criticisms of the university’s rape crisis services — some female N.Y.U. students are feeling a heightened concern for the dangers that can strike them at any time, even in an area that is statistically one of the city’s safest.

“Ever since [the attacks] happened, my friends and I have been a lot more conscious about staying safe,” said sophomore Brenna Pearlman, 19, several days after the most recent incident. “We’ve really made a coordinated effort to always make sure we’re with another person when walking to and from Bobst.”

Pearlman explained that she thinks N.Y.U. does “pretty well” in terms of educating female students about how to keep themselves safe in the city, but that the college could do better when it comes to quickly informing students about criminal activity in the neighborhood.

Like all N.Y.U. students, she received an e-mail almost immediately after the Oct. 31 rape was reported to police, informing her of the situation. But she didn’t learn about the Oct. 8 incident until after the suspect was arrested on Oct. 16 — and that was only because her friend, who does volunteer work for the rape crisis advocate program at Bellevue Hospital, told her after hearing the news from a police officer at the hospital.

“I never got an e-mail about that one, and after I learned about it, I remember realizing that I’d actually left Bobst very early in the morning [on Oct. 8], so it easily could’ve been me who ended up in that situation,” Pearlman said.

Falynn Newman, a 23-year-old graduate student, said that the recent attacks have also compelled her to be even more conscious of her surroundings, especially when it comes to following certain safety guidelines that she learned from her Brooklyn-born parents — one of which, she pointed out, is never to listen to music through your headphones while walking late at night.

“Before this past month, I did it sometimes, but now I never do,” she said. “If you’re wearing headphones, you just don’t hear who’s behind you, and you’re not really paying attention to what’s going on. And I realized that I need to be a little more aware, a little more careful.”

The reporter spoke to Newman as she was walking out of Bobst Library around 6 p.m. on Sunday, an hour after sunset.

“I try to leave the library pretty early,” she said. “Just now, I was going to stay for another hour, but my mom just called me and said, ‘Oh, it’s getting dark, you should head home.’ And so I left, because it is pretty dark, and you really don’t know who could be following you.”

Meanwhile, the university’s campus security seems to have stepped up its patrols around Washington Square since the October attacks.

A security guard was passing by Bobst around the same time that Newman was leaving on Sunday. He acknowledged that, although he isn’t aware of any long-term plans for increased patrolling, he and his colleagues have been more active in the week following the most recent incident.

The guard, who said he has worked at N.Y.U. for 10 years and has a background in both the military and other urban security jobs, seemed to have been thinking a lot about the Oct. 31 attack as he made the rounds.

“Hearing about it…my heart goes out to her,” he said. “It makes me sick to my stomach. And no matter how much you’ve seen, you never get numb to something like this.”