Critics oppose 'don't walk alone' message

Report released on high-profile sexual assaults at UBC

To get an idea of what’s now considered normal for University of British Columbia students after last year’s series of highly publicized sexual assaults, you don’t need to go all the way out to the Point Grey campus. All you need to do is hop on a Vancouver city bus. As the number 25 passes west of Alma St., an automated voice comes over the intercom: “Call Safewalk to escort you to your destination.”

It’s been almost four months since the last of six attacks reported between April and October that police suspect shared a culprit. All of them happened after dark with an attacker sneaking up on an unsuspecting student. Safewalk is a service that offers free escorts to those worried about their safety on campus, and the tinny voice on the bus is a daily reminder of the assaults and that police haven’t made an arrest.

READ MORE: UBC’s Safewalk took 32 minutes to show up

Last week, UBC released an interim report on its campus safety that recommends better lighting, more security cameras and looking into a mobile safety application for smartphones. But debate is still raging on campus over what exactly the university should do about the attacks. Critics worry that the report suggests the university is still too focused on what potential victims need to do to protect themselves from a predator lurking in bushes. They say the better way to reduce the number of sexual assaults is to rethink how the the university teaches students about consent.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia students are crazy about consent

Laura Fukumoto, a recent graduate of UBC’s theatre program, says the bus recording is useless. “It’s a bandaid solution on a really big issue.” She gave feedback to the committee in charge of the report and remains critical of the university’s “don’t walk alone” message. She organized a “Take Back the Night” march in the fall where more than 200 people protested victim blaming, the idea that victims are responsible for preventing their assaults. She says the report’s focus on more lights and cameras won’t help to prevent most sexual assaults, which aren’t committed by strangers. She added that the report included several new education and communication initiatives that she likes, but overall she’s worried that an opportunity for UBC to change how it teaches students about consent could devolve into a discussion about the best way for women to protect themselves.

READ MORE: The real danger for women on campus

Cheneil Hale, a third-year arts student, says that telling students to walk in groups is a good thing to do in the short-term but agrees with Fukumoto that UBC should be educating students more about sexual assault, “so it’s not always talked about as the woman’s fault.”

Louise Cowin, the UBC administrator in charge of the report, says the university has taken these criticisms into account but says safety has to also be a priority, and that means taking steps like the bus message. “I believe our responsibility as administrators when the attacks were happening was to put out a sustained message,” she says. “And that [was] ‘stay safe and don’t walk alone.'”

That message may be gaining ground on campus. Matthew Duguay, who oversees the Safewalk program, says average use has doubled since the attacks, from around a dozen walks a night to more than 20 now. It hit a high of around 90 users per evening last term. And it’s the message commuter students will continue to hear when their buses near the campus. A spokesperson for TransLink, the local transit provider, says there are no plans to stop playing the recording.

—Jonny Wakefield

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