The Universal Notebook: Brunswick’s creep factor

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On the evening of Nov. 17, Carolyn and I walked our dog around the perimeter of the Bowdoin College campus as we have become accustomed to doing since moving to Brunswick a year ago.

Carolyn decided to walk the dog home and I was driving back when police cars raced into the parking lot of Howell House, the Maine Street student residence that was once my father’s fraternity house.

The next morning I read that the police were responding to an incident in which a female student had been grabbed from behind on Potter Street, not far from the home of U.S. Sen. Angus King.

A week earlier, a Bowdoin woman had been raped by a stranger in a college apartment complex just a few blocks from our house. The assault on Potter Street angered and upset me enough that I contacted everyone I knew in town to suggest it was time for some sort of public safety meeting to inform residents about what was going on, what the police and campus security were doing, and how citizens could help. That hasn’t happened yet.

When I asked local folks what they thought the problem was, I was told that “Brunswick is changing and not for the better,” “creeps” from downtown were showing up with increasingly regularity on campus and in the neighborhoods around campus. Just a partial list of the incidents this year attests to what one Bowdoin alum called “the darkest semester I’ve ever seen.”

On Sept. 21, a prowler was reported on the second floor of Smith House. On Sept. 29, someone attempted to break into a student apartment on Potter Street. On Oct. 6, someone tried to enter a student apartment on Union Street. On Oct. 7, a peeping Tom was reported at a student apartment on School Street. On Oct. 11, a student reported being followed on Park Row. On Nov. 3, someone attempted to photograph a student through a window on Potter Street. On Nov. 10, not only was there the rape on Belmont Street, but a peeping Tom was reported at student apartments on Harpswell Street.

Town officials have told me that they have not seen a statistical increase in such incidents. If so, Brunswick is a lot creepier place than I ever imagined.

On Dec. 1, a convicted sex offender, who had been attending a support group at the Congregational church next to campus, was arrested for breaking into a woman’s apartment in Bath and exposing himself. The church evicted the offender support group, and some folks seemed to think that might put an end to incidents. But then, on Dec. 13, another female student was grabbed from behind late at night on Longfellow Street.

If Brunswick police think the arrested man was involved in any of the other incidents, they have not said so, and that’s part of the problem – lack of information.

The sexual assaults and peeping Tom incidents came at the same time that students of color at Bowdoin were reporting an increased incidence of racial slurs and verbal harassment. So there is more than one form of creepiness afflicting Brunswick at the moment. Indeed, there was also an incident of racism on campus this fall when the sailing team held a “gangsta”-themed party and paraded around in public dressed in corn rows and hip-hop gear.

At the behest of the college, the Brunswick Town Council has formed a task force to look into issues of racial bias in the town. That’s a start. I am hopeful that the council will also address the issue of sexual predation.

In 32 years in Yarmouth I never had a single reason to call the police and we never locked the doors, even when we went away for a few days. In one year in Brunswick, I have already called the police three times. The first time, it was because our car had been burglarized in our driveway. Then there was a dead skunk on the walkers’ path between the elementary school and the middle school. Most recently, I called to report a hypodermic needle on the sidewalk near the elementary school.

Brunswick is a lovely town, a former mill town and military town, a college town and a market center. But with a population of 20,000, Brunswick is really a small city and it’s starting to have city problems. Homelessness and the social issues that go with it – drug addiction, mental illness, crime – are not as evident as they are in Portland, but they are here.

Some folks seem to think the season of racial and sexual harassment is primarily a college problem, but it is simply unacceptable that any woman should fear walking the streets of Brunswick after dark.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.