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U Of C Students: Dorm Is Plagued With Exploding Toilets, Other Hazards

CHICAGO (CBS) -- College students never expect the equivalent of five-star hotel accommodations at their dorms, but some University of Chicago students say the conditions at one dorm cross the line to the unacceptable.

Pierce Hall, 5514 S. University Ave., is a 10-story dormitory dating from 1960. It's divided into four houses named after U of C professors and other scholars – Henderson, Tufts, Shorey and Thompson. The dorm is as eclectic and quirky as the U of C itself – Shorey House residents have an annual tradition of painting a "bizarre and idolistic statue" that stands in their house lounge, while Henderson House residents have their very own mascot (a wombat) and their own special name for themselves ("Hendus.")

But right now, many students are fit to be tied about unsanitary conditions throughout the dorm, particularly in the restrooms. They are complaining that water outages and even "exploding toilets" have been a problem since the beginning of the year.

The U of C has vowed to make sure the problems get fixed swiftly.

A first-year student, Michelle Rodriguez, recently testified before U of C student government representatives about some of the incidents. The video testimony was posted on a Tumblr created by Rodriguez and other students to document the problems at the dorm.

2x2Minutes #13-- Exploding Toilets in Pierce-- an interview, update about admin meetings! by Angela Wang on YouTube

Among the incidents was one occasion a couple of weeks ago when a toilet exploded.

"In a 24-hour period, the plumbing exploded twice, and exploded with such force and severity that a toilet bowl… shattered, throwing porcelain shards across the bathroom," Rodriguez said in the video. "There were, on the floor, there were just rivers of excrement, urine and pieces of porcelain. There were no e-mails, no nothing, no notifications sent from house administration about the issue."

Following the second explosion, which happened around 2 a.m., the hot water was out for 12 hours, Rodriguez said in the video.

In an article published last week by the Chicago Maroon, Rodriguez gave a graphic description of what happened when she flushed a toilet that she discovered had been left full recently. She said it "turned into a geyser," and graphically described being left with "pieces of someone else's excrement on my hair, my face, my lips," as a result.

The Maroon adds further that in October, the resident head at Shore House advised students to shower at the nearby Ratner Athletic Center due to repeated water outages.

But while the most disgusting problems have arisen in the bathrooms, Rodriguez claims in her student government testimony that there are numerous other safety hazards. For one example, she said, every room has pipes that run along the floor that she claims are "200 degrees" and are not insulated.

"You're sleeping, your hand falls off your bed, and suddenly you're woken up with burns on your hand," Rodriguez said in the video. "I had a friend whose backpack fell against a pipe. She now has a hole burned through her backpack."

Rodriguez also said some of the locks on the doors are defective and just spin instead of unlocking the doors, leaving some residents locked in their rooms for over an hour. She also said the elevators are "unreliable" and sometimes open "6 to 8 inches below the level of the floor" or even while the elevators are still in motion.

Rodriguez's Tumblr has been up for a while, but recently received renewed attention when a student tried to take a shower and ended up getting sprayed with "brown sludge," she said in the video.

Following a meeting last week between 125 Pierce residents and several administrators about the problems, the U of C quickly agreed that the conditions were not acceptable and vowed to take action.

In the interest of rectifying the problems, U of C Housing Services office has set up a "Pierce Updates" page, which lists the latest in plans for taking action on repairs. The university has also dispatched a facilities service staffer to the building, monitoring water pressure 24 hours a day.

When spring quarter begins in late March, the university will also repaint common areas, upgrade kitchens, and buy new lounge furniture.

"At the highest level of University leadership, we regret the conditions you have encountered. We find them unacceptable, and share your determination to improve your quality of life," U of C vice president for campus life and dean of students Kimberly Goff-Crews said in an e-mail issued this past Wednesday.

CBS Chicago Web Producer Adam Harrington contributed to this report.

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