Students and Faculty on Safety and the Challenges of Urban Universities

Photo Credit: Unsplash/ Yassine Khalfalli

By Jazmine Ramos

Boston University News Service

As the fall semester takes another gear, students trudge through their everyday schedules amid stabbings, suspicious package warnings and heightened regard for their safety.

A woman was reportedly stabbed outside of Boston University’s College of Fine Arts on Sept. 22. Four days later, a suspicious package was found at BU’s Questrom School of Business and treated as a potential bomb threat.

While recent incidents have alarmed some, students expressed general feelings of safety on campus. 

Students and faculty understand the security challenges that urban universities may face. But to some, the solution to these problems is unclear.

 “I feel really freaked out hearing about the packages and stuff. It’s so confusing. You don’t expect something like that to happen, but I guess we do live in a city,” said Sadie Cowan, a senior at the College of Arts and Sciences.

Cowan expressed that she fears for her safety in alternative situations not related to the university.

“I feel pretty safe at BU. I feel like that has a lot to do with being a senior and a white woman. I don’t really feel safe anywhere at night, but I think that’s because I’m a woman,” Cowan said.

Carly Baker, a junior seated in the Starbucks at the Questrom School of Business, expressed similar sentiments of feeling safe on campus but not when she walks outside alone at nighttime. She does not believe it is the university’s responsibility to ensure the safety of their students that live off campus. However, like others, Baker believes that when crime-related incidents occur there are not enough resources or information.

“After the package incident, they didn’t reveal what actually happened after. If they are going to make a big deal of something they should at least tell us what happened because some people are going to be stressed out about it,” Baker said.

Freshman Liam Harm noted that his safety at BU has never been his primary concern.

“While Boston University has a large and spread-out campus with varying environments there are countless Blue Light Stations spread out across campus,” said Harm. “Maintaining a safe environment on BU’s campus is no simple feat given the size and diversity within the campus, but to my knowledge, after being on campus for a full month, student safety is being fairly well taken care of.”

Harm, however, shared similar sentiments with Baker on the flaws in communication.

“My one gripe with BU’s alert system is that while keeping students informed to some degree, the occasional lack of initial details may have created more confusion and rumors than it was intended to solve,” Harm said.

Safety concerns extend beyond just the student body. Parents are also affected by the alerts they receive, especially with their children being away from them.

Melissa Ally, the mother to a College of General Studies freshman, is originally from the small city of Chetek, Wisconsin, populated with approximately only 2,000 people. Ally had many reservations about her daughter coming to Boston, but most of her fears stemmed from being from a small town, she said.

Like many other parents, Ally gets her information from BU’s text alert system and parent Facebook forums. She claims the university did not give much information regarding student safety protocols during orientation.

“It was a little alarming hearing this stuff and the text alarm system gives you half a pass of it and it just cuts off and you don’t get the rest. That’s weird! I feel like that could be a lot better because part of the alarm is why this cut off. Give me the rest, maybe I’ll feel better,” Ally said.

Ally is unsure of what solutions can be reached regarding general safety within the city.

“I think security is good, but I also think that too much isn’t good either. You don’t want it to be like a police state or feel like one,” Ally said.

Carlos Cuevas, a psychologist and professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University acknowledges the challenges that universities in the city face. Cuevas explained it can sometimes be difficult for universities to delve deeply into certain issues because questions of legality come into play. 

For example, the stabbing on Commonwealth Ave. occurred outside of a BU building, but it was also on a public street. Universities have to consider difficult questions such as what they can do when incidents do not directly involve their students. 

However, Cuevas believes that regardless of what universities have jurisdiction over, they have a responsibility on their end to properly communicate to their students what is happening and how they are responding to it. 

“You want to make sure that people are informed. You also want to be sure that they are getting accurate information,” Cuevas said. “I think that’s important because it helps keep rumors from spreading and helps people feel safe.”

In 2020, BU President Robert A. Brown established the Community Safety Advisory Group, alternatively known as the CSAG, to create effective responses to safety issues at BU.

The CSAG’s goal is to use the voice and perspective of both students and faculty to look for proper responses to incidents that affect the community.

“We come out of a COVID-19 era when people were somewhat isolated. Now we’re learning how to be a community again,” said Andrea Taylor, CSAG’S Senior Diversity Officer. “I really think the interest in safety has increased as a result of the pandemic.”

Taylor explained that the CSAG has various subcommittees designed to address specific problems. Student feedback is the highest priority for the CSAG to ensure that everyone on campus feels well-represented in their concerns. In terms of safety, the committee is currently working towards finding better ways to address security measures within the community. 

“We are looking for recommendations that will address not just safety but safety with the goal of ensuring that everybody does feel comfortable and to relieve as much of the tension, anxiety, and discordant silent sense of the campus,” Taylor said.

Both Taylor and Cuevas agree that there is a dire need to support the students of the university and ensure that they have the proper resources they need to ease any fears they may have. 

“We are neighbors to the community that the institution is in, and whether that neighbor is one person or that neighbor is a 15,000-student institution, you want to be able to have a good relationship with the community you are in,” Cuevas said.

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