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Students Say Barnard And Columbia Failed To Warn Them About Rising Crime In Morningside Park


Police have arrested a 13-year-old boy in connection with the murder of 18-year-old Tessa Majors, a first-year Barnard College student who was fatally stabbed in Morningside Park on Wednesday.

The teenager confessed, and will face murder, robbery, and weapons charges, an NYPD official with knowledge of the case confirmed to Gothamist. The NYPD is also speaking with a 12-year-old, the official said.

Majors was not the first victim of a violent crime in Morningside Park this year, but neither Barnard nor Columbia told students about the series of crimes or any other risks in Morningside Park, according to three current students who spoke with Gothamist.

This despite a federal law requiring schools to notify students about crimes that occur not just on school property, but near it.

“There was a security orientation, but there wasn’t anything about that park specifically,” said Sarah Kopyto, a first-year Barnard student.

“The school didn’t say anything during orientation,” said Melissa, a Columbia sophomore from Singapore who declined to give her last name.

Melony, another Columbia student who also declined to give her last name, also said there had not been any warnings given about Morningside Park.

Though no official warning about the park was provided by Columbia or Barnard, all three current students said other students had cautioned them not to walk through the park, especially after dark.

“It’s not safe. I was told not to walk through that park,” Melony said. Melissa said that when she started freshman year “upperclassmen told me not to go through the park when its dark.”

Majors was attacked by as many as three people shortly after she entered Morningside Park, Rodney Harrison, NYPD Chief of Detectives, said during a Thursday news conference. Police received a 911 call about the attack just after 5:30 p.m.

“During the struggle, one of these individuals pulled out a knife and stabbed our victim several times,” Harrison said.

Mortally wounded, Majors staggered up a wide staircase of steep stone steps to at 116th Street and Morningside Drive, feet from Columbia’s School of Law. There, a Columbia University Public Safety Officer stationed at a guard post saw her and called 911. Majors was pronounced dead at Mount Sinai/St. Luke’s Hospital, police said.

Iesha Sekou, a neighborhood resident, anti-violence activist, and CEO of Street Corner Resources, said that many crimes had been committed in Morningside Park over the years.

“Dead bodies would be found in that park,” Sekou said. “A lot of people got beat-up, jumped, killed in that park.”

As beautiful as it looks today, back in the 1990s “it was pitch black. People would go in there smoke crack, have sex, live in the park,” recalled Sekou.

“They would prey on people. Elderly and young people who would take the risk of walking through the park.”

Although crime has since plummeted to historic lows in the 30 years since, Morningside Park’s notoriety as a dangerous place is hardly a thing of the past.

A 12-year-old girl allegedly took part in a spree of robberies around Morningside Park in April; long-time LGBT and AIDS activist Bob Lederer suffered traumatic brain injury after he was beaten and kicked in the head by a group of youths in Morningside Park on April 17; and in November the NYPD made arrests in a pattern of robbery cases in the area that “parallels this incident here,” NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said at the Thursday news conference.

“Juveniles anywhere from 14 to 16 years of age arrested in that pattern,” Shea said. According to the Times, there had been 20 robberies inside Morningside Park or on its perimeter as of December 8th of this year, compared to seven in the same period last year.

Barnard has been an quasi-independent college within Columbia University since 1900, according to its website. While Barnard has “its own trustees, faculty, and dean” and is in charge of its own endowment and facilities, it shares some common responsibilities with Columbia, including security.

Kopyto, Majors’s fellow Barnard first-year, is from New York. She said that Morningside Park’s risks were so well known in her circle of friends. “A lot of people were confused,” when they learned that Majors had been killed, Kopyto said. “Why was she there?”

Still, Kopyto said, she could see how someone “who was from out of town, or who was out-of-the-loop,” would not know. Majors was from Charlottesville, Virginia.

Police officers use a flashlight in Morningside Park after sundown

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Detectives in Morningside Park

J.B. Nicholas / Gothamist

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act requires colleges and universities that get federal funds to notify students about crime on campus or on public property “adjacent” to campus. Notification must be made “in a manner that is timely” and “will aid in the prevention of similar” crimes.

Columbia issued 28 “Clery Crime Alerts” so far in 2019, according to Columbia University’s public safety website, but none warn students of the spree of assaults and robberies that occurred in Morningside Park this year. That’s because the park—which is across the street from Columbia property, sits between Columbia and a Barnard student dormitory on 110th Street, and is used by students to get to Columbia from off-campus apartments in Harlem or from the 116th subway station — is not considered a “Clery location.”

“We take very seriously our obligations to keep students, faculty and staff informed, as reflected by the fact that an alert was shared with the Columbia community shortly after we became aware of the crime committed Wednesday evening,” a university spokesperson said.

“An institution’s Clery geography ends at the sidewalk across the street from their campus building property,” S. Daniel Carter, a campus safety expert and president of Safe Campuses LLC, confirmed.

A U.S. Department of Education Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting (PDF, page 2-15) states, “If the public park is on the opposite side of the street from your campus, do not include it in your public property category.”

But Columbia’s own public safety report from 2018 defines its Clery geography to include “all public property… that is immediately adjacent to and accessible from the campus.” Morningside Park is located across the street from the university’s “Faculty House.” And a Columbia University public safety officer’s post is located right next to the entrance to the park, on the eastern side of Morningside Drive.

The university spokesperson pointed to a “crime informationals” section of the public safety website that offer details about other incidents. However, the incidents appear to involve people or buildings affiliated with the university and its schools, and do not include details about crimes affecting the non-campus community in the immediate area (the Morningside Park robberies earlier this year are not mentioned). It is also unclear how the “crime informationals” list is shared with students.

“There’s a reasonable expectation that if there’s a threat to students that’s occurring near the campus, a timely warning is appropriate in the most serious of threats,” Carter said, who has written about off-campus safety warnings. “As a general rule, most of the students, they want to be warned about serious crimes that affect their safety—and they demand it.” He considered knifepoint robberies to be of a serious threat nature.

In a statement, Barnard said they sent an emergency text notification alert “to all registered students, faculty, and staff about police investigating a robbery/stabbing inside Morningside Park. The alert included a description of the suspect and a warning to avoid the area as soon as the office became aware of the assault.”

Barnard College’s Director of Media Relations, Kathryn Gerlach, declined to answer multiple questions about whether the school cautioned students about entering the notoriously dangerous park before Majors was fatally stabbed.

“If you talk to the police and look at COMPStat reports, you will see that there are violent acts that happen often in that park, and they should be informing Columbia students about them,” said Sekou, the anti-violence worker.

“It is their responsibility as an institution to not just tell them about the great things of this city, but to also talk to them about the possibility of dangers,” Sekou added.

Several hundred students and mourners gathered for a memorial service Thursday evening at Barnard. Scores of young women and men carrying flowers began flowing into the school shorty after 6 p.m.

“President [Lee] Bollinger and I are committed to doing everything we can to reinstill a sense of safety for all of us in our community,” Barnard’s president, Sian Beilock, told mourners. “I have spoken directly, and repeatedly, to the Police Commissioner who has kept me informed about the investigation. In the days ahead we will be discussing with the police overall safety in our community and what more we can do to restore that sense of safety we all demand and we all deserve in our broader New York City community.”

Some people at the vigil carried bouquets of flowers that they set in a circle in the courtyard of the school. The crowd grew and surrounded the circle of flowers. There was a moment of silence before they walked in a long, solemn line into the building.

Additional reporting by Jen Chung and Christopher Robbins.

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