Some students are questioning security at Humboldt State University after a recent incident in which eight people were sexually assaulted.

The assaults took place in and around a handful of dormitory buildings last weekend and are the fourth time this year that a student has been assaulted on campus. For freshman Holly Humphreys, the attacks have shaken her faith in campus safety.

”I definitely feel like there are a few loopholes in security around here,” said Humphreys, a freshman art major who lives in Sunset, the scene of the first assault last Sunday. “I don't like staying out very late now.”

Humphreys carries a pocketknife with her for protection and said that while she is glad she came to HSU, she would like to see more security. She suggested a nightly checkpoint on the north end of campus, where the majority of on-campus residents live and anybody is free to enter.

The idea might have prevented a spree of assaults last weekend, which the University Police Department called a random occurrence.

The attacks began early Sunday morning when Martin S. Alvarado, 29, reportedly gained access to the Sunset dormitory when a front door was left slightly ajar, said University Police Department Lt. Lynne Soderberg. Alvarado assaulted two female students in the bathroom of the building before another student helped fight him off.

A Southern California native who authorities believe was in Arcata to visit a relative, Alvarado continued assaulting students in nearby Cypress dormitory, knocking on doors and forcing his way into rooms.


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At some point during the attacks, he picked up a two-by-four to use as a weapon. He was arrested less than an hour after the initial assault.

Eight victims reported minor injuries, said Soderberg, none of which required immediate medical attention. Alvarado, meanwhile, remains in custody in Humboldt County jail facing 19 separate charges, including sexual assault, assault with a deadly weapon other than a gun, battery, public intoxication, attempted kidnapping and burglary.

The attack, which nobody seems to have an explanation for, is not the first to shake up the campus this year.

In February, a pair of 19-year-old students were briefly hospitalized after an assault on the north end of campus, which took place just one week after a separate incident near the Art building in which a 23-year-old student was allegedly tackled from behind before being beaten by an unidentified male suspect.

Then in March, a female student was briefly grabbed by a suspect while she was walking near the University Center building at the center of campus. UPD officials do not believe the incidents, which all took place under the cover darkness, were related in any way.

The assaults represent a spike in violent crime at the school, which is ranked among the top 47 California Universities in terms of safety in a recent study by stateuniversity.com.

From 2007 to 2009 there was only one incident of aggravated assault (usually accompanied by the use of a weapon or by means likely to produce death or great bodily harm) on campus, according to data pursuant to the Jeanne Clery Act. During the same time frame, there have been seven cases of forcible sex offenses -- any sexual act directed against the person's will where the victim is incapable of giving consent.

Soderberg said that the majority of sex crimes are committed by people who know the victim, so it is hard to explain the recent situation in which the suspect appeared to be a complete stranger.

”Assaults happen every once in a while,” Soderberg said. “But not like this.”

Soderberg said the campus tends to be very open and that preventing assaults like Sunday's is almost impossible.

”It's more about risk reduction,” said Soderberg, adding that she felt students responded well to the recent attack. “We're a family here, and we want to make sure our students feel safe while they get their education.”

The sentiment was echoed by some students, who said that Alvarado took advantage of a generally safe environment. Freshman Lindsey Smith lives in Cypress, and she said that the attack has caused her to be more aware of her surroundings. 

”It's all about helping other people, especially in a suite situation,” said Smith, a wildlife major who, unlike most residents, shares a suite-style room with her Community Advocate, a housing staff member who lives in the dorms and serves as a resource to fellow students. “That makes me feel safer.”

Campus officials, meanwhile, are working on a handful of security measures to improve safety inside the dorms, including installing locks on hallway doors and requiring residents to use their card keys in order to enter the bathroom. Housing Director John Capaccio said staff members also briefed students during a meeting following the incident, reiterating safety tips.

”We want to ensure them that we take this matter very seriously,” Capaccio said. “At the same time, students need to know they play a key role in their own security.”

Capaccio said that there is a strong sense of community on the campus and that short of taking a drastic measure such as installing a fence around the entire school, little can be done to eliminate violence. Instead, he said, the school needs to focus on maintaining a balance between safety and openness.

”At some point you have to decide: 'Where do we give up our personal freedoms for security?'”

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For more information on the Clery Act and crime statistics at HSU, visit: http://ope.ed.gov/security/

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Matt Drange can be reached at 441-0514 or mdrange@times-standard.com.