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Jim Kenyon: Open Door Policy at Dartmouth Dorm Rooms

With their radiant heated floors, copper roofs and furniture made from trees cut in the college’s own forests, the six brick buildings that make up the McLaughlin Residential Cluster are just one more reason why Dartmouth can get away with charging $60,000 a year.

The half dozen residence halls (to call them dorms wouldn’t do them justice) that opened in 2006 on the north end of campus came with a construction price tag of $41.4 million.

I wonder if Dartmouth wishes it had spent a little less on elements that reflect the college’s “traditional Georgian architecture” and a little more on security. If it had, the middle-of-the-night sexual encounter in a female student’s dorm room that led to the rape trial that concluded Thursday arguably might never have happened.

Why? Bear with me.

During the nine-day trial that ended with a not guilty verdict, the accuser testified that freshman classmate Parker Gilbert entered her unlocked dorm room in the McLaughlin complex around 3 a.m. on May 2, 2013, while she was sleeping.

At many colleges, entering another student’s room isn’t as easy as opening an unlocked door.

St. Lawrence University in upstate New York and Boston College are among schools that I’m aware of that, unlike Dartmouth, have done away with keys. Doors to dorm rooms are controlled by electronic access systems that work much the same way as ATMs. Students punch their personal identification number into a keypad on the door. And when the door closes, it automatically locks.

Jack Dunn, director of news and public affairs at Boston College, told me that it’s been at least 10 years since students were given keys. Electronic access systems “provide a level of comfort for students and parents,” he said.

And it’s not just big-city schools. Canton, N.Y., the home of St. Lawrence, has about 6,700 residents. St. Lawrence, which has 1,200 dorm rooms, was already using keypads when Pat Gagnon, the college’s chief of security, arrived in 1997. After so many years, “no one could imagine now what it would be like to have keys,” he said.

Some schools are outfitting only new dorms with electronic access systems, while others are going back and installing them in older buildings, said Trent Bamberry, who works in marketing for GoKeyless.com in Dayton, Ohio. Having a “key that’s in your brain and you just memorize the number” has its security advantages and is convenient for students to use, said Bamberry, whose company’s clients include Ohio State and the University of Massachusetts.

“Many of our peer (colleges) are making the leap, but it’s not a cheap leap,” said Gagnon. The cost is roughly $500 a door, he said. By my math, it would have cost Dartmouth roughly $90,000 to equip the 180 or so rooms in the McLaughlin complex with numeric keypads.

Justin Anderson, Dartmouth’s assistant vice president of media relations, assured me that the college isn’t trying to cut corners by sticking to old-fashioned keys. (After hearing that Dartmouth spent $40 million to renovate the Hanover Inn, I was worried the college might not be feeling as flush as usual.) Keys and deadbolt locks “still provide the maximum amount of security,” said Anderson.

John Carter, the chief of police at Amherst College, agreed with him. During recent dorm renovation projects, Amherst opted not to make the switch. “One key opens one door,” said Carter. “It’s pretty foolproof.”

An argument against keypad systems: Students share their access codes with friends and partners, which they might later regret. That happens, acknowledged Gagnon. But if a need arises, students can call his department 24/7 to have the access code changed.

If not for police reports and trial testimony, I wouldn’t have known that Dartmouth students were still using an antiquated system of metal keys and locks to protect themselves and their property. When jurors visited the McLaughlin dorm complex during Gilbert’s trial, members of the media were barred from going inside with them. Anderson said the college was protecting students’ privacy, but as far as I know, the press has a right to be present when a criminal trial is under way.

Fortunately, I found a student to explain what goes on with dorm room keys.

Alex Jarvis is a Dartmouth sophomore who was called by the prosecution to testify in the Grafton Superior Court jury trial that ended with Gilbert’s acquittal on all charges, including criminal trespassing. She’s a close friend of the woman who accused Gilbert of entering her room uninvited.

Outside the courtroom, I asked Jarvis if it was unusual for students to keep their doors unlocked. Not at all, she said. “I’m always losing my key.” Keeping their doors unlocked is a matter of convenience, she said. It also probably doesn’t help that Dartmouth charges $55 to replace a key.

It’s easy to understand why students might feel safe in their rooms. Like many schools, Dartmouth has clamped down on access to its dorms. Entrances are locked around the clock and students use swipe cards, which double as their dining hall meal ticket, to enter dorms.

It gives students the impression that their dorms are fortresses. Once safely behind the front door, they are immune to security threats. But is it providing a false sense of security?

Maybe it’s time for Dartmouth to throw away the keys.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.