Chelsea Mishan stood face-to-face with a man she’d never seen outside her floor’s elevator in Houston House. The first-year in forestry, fisheries and wildlife saw the stranger exit her room, which she said she left deadbolted open for no more than five minutes while talking with friends down the hall.
Suspicious, she asked why he’d been in the room. The stranger pulled out a one-dollar bill, told her he found it on the floor, and said he wanted to find its owner.
In actuality, he’d stolen at least $100 and two credit cards out of wallets belonging to Mishan and others in the residence hall.
“I wasn’t really that upset that he took the cash,” Mishan said. “It was more scary knowing that this dude was in my room and that he could easily get in and that anyone could walk into the building at any time by just following someone in with a BuckID.”
However, Mishan’s case is a sample of a growing campus trend.
A Lantern analysis of data obtained from the university’s annual crime report shows that campus burglaries have skyrocketed in recent years, with more than 12 times the number of burglaries reported in 2017 than in 2014.
It aligns with the implementation of Ohio State’s second-year campus living requirement, as more students than ever live on campus and are seen as easy targets by criminals.
Ohio State rolled out a new plan to keep second-year students on campus in 2014, part of an initiative to raise student retention levels. An aspect of this project entailed the construction of brand-new dorms on north campus equipped with study rooms, dining areas, private bathrooms and a coffee shop.
These new residence halls added about 3,200 beds to the north campus residential area, according to a press release from the beginning of the project. Living on campus became a requirement for second-year students prior to the 2016-2017 academic year.
More students living in dorms on Ohio State’s main campus also means new opportunities for burglaries and thefts.
“There’s a lot of naive people that believe that the people around them won’t steal from them,” Monica Moll, Ohio State director of public safety, said. “There’s a learning curve when we move out of our parents’ home, go to college and become responsible for your own residence and your own things, locking doors —it takes a while.”
Many of these crimes occur in residence halls after perpetrators enter the premises via a held-open door from an unsuspecting student, then proceed to steal from an unlocked room, according to Moll.
A string of five burglaries in a 10-day span from Feb. 8 to Feb. 18 with such a method prompted the Department of Public Safety to release a campus-wide notice on Feb. 19.
“At orientation, [resident advisors] try to stress, ‘Don’t open your deadbolt, keep your door propped open or leave things unlocked,’” Moll said.
After a three-year low of four on-campus burglaries in the 2014 calendar year, total campus burglaries rose to 15 in 2015, the same time the new living spaces were added.
This was followed by 19 burglaries in 2016 and 49 in 2017, the first full calendar year sophomore Ohio State students were required to live on campus. Data from the 2018 calendar year is not yet available.
Under the Clery Act, the law that requires universities participating in federal financial aid programs to release reported crime statistics to the public, burglary is defined as “any unauthorized entry into a premise that results in theft,” according to Ohio State deputy Clery Act coordinator Melinda Benson. This differs from a state or federal definition, which typically requires forced entry of some kind.
“To give you an example, somebody has their door propped open in a residence hall, and they’ve got a five dollar bill sitting on the desk, and somebody walks by, reaches in and grabs the five dollars,” Moll said. “They probably wouldn’t end up with a burglary conviction [under Ohio law]. But because they entered a private residence, we try to be real strict about the way we count for the Clery Act; those are campus burglaries.”
In reporting crime data as designated by the Clery Act, statistics are given for 14 different types of crime in several different categories: campus non-residential, campus residential, campus total, non-campus and public property.
While non-campus and public property crimes describe incidents affecting students in buildings or residences owned by Ohio State, the three campus categories are on Ohio State’s campus, Benson said.
Residential crimes occur in dorms or other campus living spaces, while non-residential occur on any other campus property. Campus total is the combination of those two categories.
Out of the 49 total campus burglaries in 2017, 35 occurred in student residence facilities.
Burglary was the only Clery Act-reported crime to experience a leap this drastic.
Domestic violence shows the next highest average increase in reports, jumping from a campus total of 5 in 2014 to 21 in 2017.
Following those two crimes, rape showed the next highest average increase in the span from 2014 to 2017, jumping from 20 to 71.
In addition, burglaries across Columbus have decreased by an average of 5.2 percent within the same timeframe, and 11.8 percent since 2011, according to crime statistics obtained from Ohio’s Office of Criminal Justice Services, which releases a county-by-county crime report yearly.
Thieves on campus are targeting students specifically, knowing that most are away from home for their first time and very trusting of those around them, Moll said.
“It’s the type of crime of opportunity where, if [students] listen to the advice that’s given to them, they can greatly reduce their risk for these types of crimes,” Moll said.
Individual student accounts from 2018 and 2019 may indicate that the trend is continuing.
On Feb. 19, Ohio State released a public safety notice intended for residence halls.
Five burglaries occurred within 10 days of each other in four North Campus dorms, which prompted the notice. All fit the same description and were believed to be carried out by the same perpetrator, who entered residence halls behind a student with a BuckID, went upstairs to find unlocked dorm rooms, went inside and stole property.
Incident reports from the burglaries indicate the property stolen across the five incidents included six gaming consoles with numerous controllers and games, an iPad charger, an external hard drive and a pair of prescription eyeglasses.
Details from Mishan’s story further outlines the ways in which burglaries and thefts in residence halls occur.
After speaking with the suspect, she remained unsure of his intentions. Her iPad and computer remained untouched. She texted a large group chat of residents from the building to see if anyone else noticed suspicious activity.
Fellow Houston residents replied that they had cards and cash taken. It was then that Mishan and roommate Libby Mannix, a first-year in data analytics, searched their wallets and found that their cash was also gone.
What happened to other residents bothered Mishan, she said.
“Literally the dude was sleeping, the guy went in and took the stuff out, left his wallet on the floor and left,” Mishan said. “We checked our wallets and all the cash was gone.”
Another student walked in on the suspect rummaging through her room in Houston, Mishan said. He left upon questioning.
Mishan spoke to her resident advisor after discovering the theft, who then contacted law enforcement to file an official report.
Police contacted Mishan again some time later for a photo lineup. Asked to pick whom among six pictures she thought it was, she said she was “60 to 70 percent sure” she identified the perpetrator.
“In the moment I was not paying attention to what he looked like. I was like, ‘This dude just came out of my room,” Mishan said.
What Mishan does remember is that the man didn’t look out of place.
“He looked like he could’ve been a junior or senior,” Mishan said. “He could easily pass as a student anywhere. No one was gonna question him. Because again, I see people in the dorm all the time that I’ve never seen before, but that doesn’t mean they don’t live there.”
Regardless, she said the incident changed her view on personal security and trusting strangers.
“My friends and I definitely lock our doors now,” Mishan said. “It’s definitely more scary.”
Moll said these thieves are taking advantage of any opportunity they get; it doesn’t matter if there are people around because if they find an unattended room propped open, they will enter and steal valuables.
This piece of information is further corroborated by Matt Polatas, a second-year in chemical engineering, who lives in Blackburn House.
Polatas’ girlfriend was visiting from Akron University and stayed through Feb. 11.
When he departed for his job as a teaching assistant in the College of Engineering, Polatas left his room deadbolted open for an hour so his girlfriend could study in the adjacent space and not be locked out.
A burglar entered and stole three gaming consoles, games and controllers from Polatas and his roommate, as well as Polatas’ girlfriend’s backpack and a duffle bag to help transport it all.
“There’s some sort of trust and security that you associate with the dorms, even if you’re told to always lock your doors, and you don’t expect that to happen to you ever,” Polatas said.
Immediately Polatas, his girlfriend and his roommate filed a police report. The thief left without taking his roomate’s new camera and a few other valuables. Police have stayed in contact with Polatas to give intermittent updates about the investigation.
“I appreciate that, at least,” Polatas said.
Like Mishan, Polatas increased his effort to protect his belongings.
“There’s a little sense of being paranoid after that,” Polatas said. “I’m just going to refill my water bottle, but I close the door every time now just to be safe.”