Gabriel Sistare, editor-in-chief
An incident in which an individual from off-campus exposed himself to a bystander and started masturbating on the river trail has prompted the campus to assess the safety of campus trails and the issue of public access to the forest.
The student who witnessed the March 7 incident called Public Safety, who then called the Sheriff’s Department.
According to Terry Payne, director of public safety, the suspect was pursued after he swam across the river and fled. The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department responded but the subject was not apprehended.
The offender was described as a “white male, 40-45 years old, with a scruffy beard, shoulder-length gray-brown hair, 5’9″, approximately 250 lbs., stocky build, dirty jeans, no shirt, [and a] large black tattoo on his back.”
Similar incidents have occurred on campus before, including an incident of indecent exposure involving a suspect whose appearance was similar to the one in the most recent incident. But Payne noted that this was an exceptional occasion.
“This particular incident went beyond what we normally see on campus,” Payne said.
Payne noted that the freedom of movement on the campus grounds makes it difficult to oversee the area and prevent such incident from occuring.
“As open as this campus is,” Payne said, “as many places as there are to park [...] it’s difficult unless you mark [the campus] as private property and limit the number of individuals [who recreate on campus].”
The issue of identifying the campus as private property to the outside community has come up before.
In 2008, Payne approached the Buildings and Grounds Committee with a suggestion to limit the number of recreational visitors to campus, presumably to decrease the number of people who might vandalize campus property and commit lewd acts.
Payne’s suggestion never made it out of the committee.
In response to the recent exposure incident, David Ellum, professor of forestry and forest manager for the college, sent an e-mail to the entire campus community asking for recommendations on how to make the campus safer.
Although he said something needs to be done to improve safety on the river trail, he is not in favor of limiting campus use to students, staff and faculty.
“I am not a proponent of putting up fences around the campus,” Ellum said in an interview. But he is concerned that the growth of the surrounding area will affect the campus.
“I am worried that Warren Wilson is going to be the dog-walking park for Asheville,” he said.
According to Ellum, there is a perception among area residents that the college is free and open public property. He cited a survey from a few years ago showing that 40 percent of the outside community incorrectly believed that the campus was public property.
Given the recent indecent exposure on the river trail, Ellum said the college needs to find a way to allow access to the campus grounds while increasing safety for students as well.
One suggestion has been to allow members in the surrounding community to apply for permits authorizing campus access, although Ellum and others think this idea is not practical.
Ellum noted that the situation is not only an issue related to the forests. He identified the campus in general, including all land owned by the college, as one larger educational landscape that needs to be protected.
“The bottom line is that it is our forest,” Ellum said.