‘Rape stairs’ stigma unfitting

Around campus they are known as the “rape stairs” – the stairs that descend from Beacon Street to Cummington Street – and they are notorious for their isolated position and dim street lighting. But according to campus officials, the stairs’ history is simply that – history.

Vice President for Enrollment and Student Affairs Anne Shea said the name of the stairs dates back to the mid-1980s when there were a series of “really brutal rapes” there.

But Boston University Police Department Sgt. Jack St. Hilaire said under his watch, “there has never been a sexual assault reported there.” Past incidents have contributed to the perception that the stairs are unsafe, he said.

Several months ago, for instance, two supposedly homeless people mugged a student near the stairs, he said, and a fight between two homeless people living under the stairs led to arrests last year.

The stairs, Hilaire said, were one of the sites he examined on a safety walk last semester with Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore and other students. Besides the dumpsters at the bottom of the stairs, which could be a good hiding spot, he said the area was made more secure with lighting improvements and a new steel gate that separates the stairs from the area under the Massachusetts Turnpike overpass.

An increased number of blue-light emergency phones and more concerted efforts during orientation to inform students and parents about the risks of living on an urban campus have also had a strong impact, Shea said.

“[The stairs] were a problem, but it has been 20 years” since the last sexual assault there, she said.

No campus tours go near the stairs, Shea said, but if the subject came up, she would hope that president’s hosts would show participants the blue phones.

Most dangerous encounters, regardless of where they take place, can be avoided by exercising good judgment, she said.

“Don’t walk down a dark alley if you wouldn’t do it at home,” she said.

Hilaire echoed Shea’s sentiment, saying self-awareness is the key to recognizing the danger of places like the “rape stairs.”

“Safety is 99 percent common sense,” he said. “[People] should be aware that there is a large homeless population underneath the bridge.”

BU spokesman Colin Riley suggested that part of the problem with the “rape stairs” could simply be that its name perpetuates fear as opposed to awareness around campus.

“It gives a false impression that there’s an imminent risk, and that’s not the case,” he said.

Still, Student Escort Services Supervisor Josh Bordis said he “probably wouldn’t walk there” by himself.

Bordis, a College of Arts and Sciences senior, said he remembers there being more requests for escorts up the stairs his freshman and sophomore years than more recently, but he was uncertain of whether that means improvements in the area have made it safer because he is never in that area anymore.

CAS sophomore Kevin Carroll said he uses the stairs at least four times a day and never feels unsafe. He admitted he might feel different if he was a woman, but said the stairs reputation regardless is “blown out of proportion.”

“It’s only dangerous when it’s slippery,” he said.

Still, not everyone dismissed the stairs’ common name.

Dina O’Donnell, a senior at the Art Institute of Boston, said she was glad there is a blue phone at the top of the stairs but still has reservations.

“They’re creepy, but I don’t think they’re dangerous,” she said. “Being a woman, I do feel uncomfortable.”

However, O’Donnell said she could not think of a solution.

“I think they’re destined to be sketchy,” she said.

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