Local authorities react to Justice poll results
Waltham Municipal officials responded this week to a Justice poll that asked students to report how safe they felt in the city. The Justice interviewed Councilor-at-Large Diane LeBlanc, Ward 5 City Councilor Joseph LaCava and Ward 7 City Councilor Kristine A. Mackin Ph.D ’14. The officials highlighted the high incidence of sexual harassment in the poll as well as the positive and negative aspects of the University’s relationship with its host city.
The officials contacted by the Justice expressed concerns about the poll’s results on sexual harassment. 30 out of 79 of the poll’s respondents said they had been sexually harassed within 15 minutes’ walk of campus, while 21 reported being harassed on Main or Moody Streets.
Waltham City Councilor-at-Large Diane LeBlanc said in a phone interview with the Justice that the results warrant a closer look at how Waltham handles sexual harassment.
“I think this presents an opportunity for further discussion. We really need to take a look at the incidents of sexual harassment, because that is pretty troubling,” she said.
LeBlanc said that she needs to better understand what was already being done by Waltham officials in order to find new solutions to fix the problem. She said that curbing sexual harassment was a matter of the resources available to the Waltham and Brandeis police departments, but that a solution needed to be found. “You don’t have the luxury of putting a police officer on every block,” she said, clarifying, “but the people that are doing these things are horrific, and nobody should have to put up with that. There needs to be a consequence.”
Sexual harassment is a uniquely difficult problem to solve, according to Ward 7 Councilor Kristine A. Mackin, Ph.D ’14. Ward 7 covers the University campus and much of South Street. She said in a phone interview with the Justice that she reached out to Waltham Chief of Police Keith MacPherson to see what could be done to solve the problem. However, she said that catcalling is difficult to stop, “because it happens quickly, the reporting rates are really low,” and when people do report, finding and then prosecuting perpetrators is difficult. This means harassment is typically only enforceable if a police officer immediately witnessed the crime, according to Mackin. The challenges to enforcing sexual harassment laws are frustrating to Mackin, who spoke candidly with the Justice about her experiences with harassment in Waltham.
“The nastiest thing anyone ever said to me was at the corner of Moody and Main street,” she continued. “I think it’s going to take a lot more pressure from people from the community to actually try to do something about it.”
Joseph LaCava, the City Councilor from Ward 5, grew up in Waltham. He called the fact that sexual harassment happens on main streets in Waltham “brazen” and “crazy” and said that he had not heard of harassment as a major issue in Waltham until he saw the results of the Justice’s poll.
Feeling Unsafe in Waltham
“It’s eye opening, all across the board,” LaCava said about respondents to the poll feeling unsafe in Waltham. LaCava admitted to feeling defensive about his hometown when he first read the results. The Councilor is in his 10th month on the City Council.
LaCava said he felt safe walking on Moody and Main Streets but understood how some Brandeis students — or even residents of North Waltham — might not feel safe there.
“People who did live in suburbs or in rural areas who come to Waltham, maybe for the first time being in somewhat of a city area, it can be scary walking down South Street,” he said. LaCava said that he thinks students may feel unsafe because of a rise in the homeless population along Main Street, although he made it clear that he does not believe they pose a danger to residents. He credited Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy for improving the lighting and sidewalk in the downtown area.
Moody Street has a higher rate of foot traffic late at night and better lighting, which probably leads to students feeling more safe in the area than on Main Street, according to Kristine Mackin (Ward 7).
Mackin said she will be taking classes with the Waltham Police Department this fall to learn more about what the police do on a regular basis and if there is anything she can do to make Waltham feel safer.
LeBlanc said that additional conversations should take place with Brandeis students, potentially in the form of a focus group, to establish why they feel more unsafe in certain areas of the city.
In an email to the Justice, Brandeis Director of Public Safety Ed Callahan said his department was “gratified to know that students mostly feel safe on campus.” But he still recommends students use techniques to stay safe off-campus, including walking in groups, using the Branvan/escort safety service and not walking with earbuds that block out ambient noise. Callahan explained that the University Police collaborates with the Waltham Police Department on matters of “students’ health and safety off campus, including landlord tenant disputes, well-being checks, fraud situations, crime prevention and noise complaints.”
Relationship Between Waltham and Brandeis
All three City Councilors felt that the University had a positive relationship with the city.
“For the most part, the residents of Waltham have a very positive opinion of both of the universities that are really an integral part of our community and of the students,” said LeBlanc.
“I would say that differs maybe a little bit the closer you live to one of the universities,” she said, referencing how parties created a “troubling situation” for some residents.
Kristine A. Mackin agreed that the attitude towards the University varied on the location of her constituents. Mackin herself lives on a property directly behind East Quad and says it’s mostly quiet on campus.
“You guys are the boringest undergrads ever. I never hear a peep out of those dorms,” she said.
Mackin said she thinks the trouble happens off campus. She gets complaints about noise, trash and glass in the streets from the residents in her ward that live next to some of the University’s unrecognized fraternities, a sentiment that LeBlanc echoed. Also, the housing pressure in Waltham is intense, and the Brandeis student body is driving up rents and home values (thus raising property tax rates) in the neighborhoods closer to campus, according to Mackin.
LeBlanc said that the housing issue is exacerbated by speculators that buy up property in Waltham with the express intention of renting to students.
Mackin noted, however, that the people who live farther from Brandeis view it in a different light.
“The people who have that less immediate impact overall view Brandeis really favorably,” Mackin notes. She highlighted that there are residents in her ward who benefit from the tutoring Brandeis students do at local elementary schools, and there are residents who are parents of older students who are looking at Brandeis as an option for higher education.
Councilor Mackin thinks that Brandeis students and Waltham residents should make more of an effort to get to know each other. “I don’t see the students talking to the neighbors very much, honestly. I know of three houses that are rented within a block of mine to Brandeis students. I say hi to them, they say hi back … but I don’t know them. Part of that's on me, I could be doing more outreach… [But] it’s on everybody to make more of an effort.”
—Editor's note: Jocelyn Gould and Sam Stockbridge contributed reporting.