How safe are we on York campus?

The rape that occurred on Retreat Lane only a few days ago has heightened concern for student safety. The University of York is not exactly equated with having an extortionate crime rate; however surely adequate measures must still be taken to ensure the safety of students? Such incidents can occur at any time and in any place but this is all the more reason for maintaining a sound and secure infrastructure. People are questioning if campus is sufficiently safe: For example, the few CCTV cameras that there are tend to be inside the University buildings themselves. The lighting is, at best, sporadic with the most isolated spots often totally without any lighting at all. The ease at which burglaries occur is also a little frightening. The Universities delayed response to some such incidents does little to reassure. And so with accumulating evidence for the accusative, one must ask, are we losing faith in safety on campus?

It has been argued for some time that there are not enough student cameras and those that are in place are in the wrong position. All too often the cameras don’t seem to be in the right location. Despite Retreat Lane’s dubious nickname ‘Rape alley’ there are still no cameras and the lighting is minimal at best (the rape that inspired the nickname happened only a few years ago.) There is a sign that states “Students are advised not to use this footpath to reach the University after dark.” However, the sign is only positioned on the side which leads off of campus, making the warning seem rather futile.

Also, someone has painted over the ‘not’ on the sign; grafitti which security staff claim has been there for at least five years. John Rose, the Student Union Education and Welfare Officer acknowledges “on campus there are things which can be done. I think the problems we face are areas surrounding the University property.”

The subway near Retreat Lane that leads to Osbaldwick is also lacking security cameras despite the fact it is underground and totally secluded: an alluring combination for any potential criminal.

The issue of lighting is also a cause for concern. Of the five bulbs that light the aforementioned subway tunnel, the middle one has the cover grating hanging off leaving it particularly susceptible to damage. (This grating also has a great number of cobwebs suggesting the damage has been overlooked for some time.) The area around Grimston House, meanwhile, has no lighting whatsoever. When questioned on this, the Students’ Union commented that it’s generally quite a busy place so the lack of lighting is not seen as much of a problem. However, the area becomes secluded at night when the nearby History department is closed, putting the students who work late in the media offices at risk. URY, Vision, Nouse and Point Shirley are all based in Grimston House and often work long hours. John Rose did point out, however, that campus lighting has increased overall from last year, “The biggest problem we’ve got are things like the south side of the lake. If you go from Physics to Derwent you find about three light bulbs on your way. There are major worries on campus. And also around Central Hall, that kind of area. I’d like to see lighting improved there…We’ve drastically improved lighting andI’d like to see it improved again.”

The lighting on campus has been a matter of concern for some time. Particularly badly lit places include the Halifax route, the south side of the lake, Edens Court and the area surrounding Grimston house. Police are allegedly reluctant to provide better lighting for Retreat Lane in case it encourages more people to use the route, enabling more crime to occur. Rose commented that “getting the extra lighting on Retreat Lane was a real struggle and it went on for ten years.” However, students will continue to use the route despite the isolated nature of the lane and its poor lighting, purely because it takes a few minutes off the alternative journey.

The Students’ Union do attempt to informstudents of potential dangers and equip them with Rape alarm and details of the free Minibus service. Rose revealed that the minibus service is “almost too successful this year”, because of the increased advertising for the service. Rose said that the SU aim to provide every female student with a rape alarm in Freshers’ Week, but urges those without to come and get one. “My room’s full of the buggers” he said.

The nature of the University campus is fairly unique. It is partly isolated by fields – on Retreat lane, especially, one must ask whether, at night anyone would even hear a rape alarm. We tested the alarms on campus twice and both times got no response (though it may still be an idea to carry them, just in case.)

Increasing incidents of burglaries highlights further holes in the security system. Students are at significant risk from burglary, with the high-density campus a veritable goldmine for criminals. Usually including a computer, along with perhaps a stereo and many other valuable items, rich pickings are to be found in a study bedroom – and the more isolated the better. The secluded nature of many accomodation blocks make many students particularly vulnerable. For example, Halifax are off-campus giving them even less protection from the University. Halifax is typically manned by one porter at night and Derwent extension block, separated from campusby a main road, does not have any security staff at all. This leaves these accommodation blocks particularly at risk to burglaries, as well as compromising the safety of the residents. The fact that the campus and the library are also open to the public means that no individual arouses suspicion.

Ground floor accommodation is particularly vulnerable to a smashed or forced open window.Sam Hanna, of James College, had first hand experience of this, with thieves forcing open his window with a screwdriver. While Hanna is generally satisfied with security on campus, and accepting of the fact that “burglaries do happen”, in the light of the ease with which his room was broken into he would like to see more secure windows, at least on the ground floor. More secure, certainly, than his is at themoment. Three weeks after the incident, his window is still just boarded up, with the university having done “nothing, to be honest.” When we approached the Security Centre, we were told any enquiries would have to go through Ken Batton; however, nouse could not reach him.

Most colleges have few security cameras, and even the ones that the University have installed are only in college bars and computer rooms. While there are at least two cameras in each computer room and three in Wenthworth’sKasbah alone, dark and isolated areas on campus are still without. This has provoked criticism that the University are concentrating on the wrong areas of campus. Another victim of the James College burglaries, who does not wish to be named, commented: “it seems that theUniversity is more worried about safe-guarding their own equipment rather than ensuring the security of its students.”

Goodricke College Secretary, Clare Meadley, says that there are “probably two or three burglaries a week” in Goodricke alone. The main problem in Goodricke, she says, is that people are “too polite”. Students have to learn not to hold the door open for people they don’t recognize, since most burglars fit in with students rather well. This is particularly true in the older colleges where the open design means that once potential burglars get past the front door they have the run of the whole building. Study bedrooms, says Meadley, should always be locked “even if you’re only popping to the kitchen to put the kettle on”, otherwise students run the risk of “sneak thieves” pinching whatever they can see.

The more isolated Halifax campus has also proved a particular favorite for thieves. Charlotte Bonner, the Environment Rep for the Halifax JCRC, explained that bike thefts are becoming such a problem that she has began negotiations with the University who are currently looking into the matter. Another student was chased all the way from campus to her home in Halifax by a man who she has estimated to be in his mid-thirties. The security centre have confirmed that porters are happy to escort students across campus, but admit that they are rarely asked.

It is because of these dangers that Goodricke College are having a student awareness week early next term. The week will involve a publicity campaign to get students to be more security conscious, combined with “security patrols”. These patrols will be made upof college staff members who will walk Goodricke’s claustrophobic halls looking for unlocked bedrooms. It is an idea taken from Berkeley University in the US which shows a typically dynamic ‘can-do’ attitude and a typically uncomplicated disregard for individuals’ privacy. Perhaps the threat of the Provost seeing inside one’s boudoir will be a more potent threat than that of one’s property being stolen, and the desired effect will be achieved.