An annual survey filled out by exiting seniors in May of this year revealed a significant drop in general satisfaction with Public Safety (PSafe) and a decrease in the feeling of safety on campus. The results, which are comparatively worse than those from similar surveys at Wesleyan’s peer institutions, have sparked conversations about ways in which the University can enhance both the actual and perceived levels of safety on campus.
“The safety on campus issue was a minor drop,” said Director of PSafe Dave Meyer. “We’ve been in the lower 80 percent range [for people saying that they do feel safe on campus] for some time, and it was not a significant decline. The [decrease in the] approval rating of PSafe was a little bit larger, though—enough to draw our attention to it. I think we have to look at this as numbers and we have to get to the root causes of those numbers.”
Although the specific results generated by the senior survey are not public, the Student Life Committee (SLC) of the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA), which has access to the figures, will be working in conjunction with PSafe and the administration to investigate why such a decline occurred.
“Most general areas of student life and campus life are included in [the senior survey], but there’s no way to write-in specific issues,” said Joe O’Donnell ’13, who chairs the SLC along with Vice President for Student Affairs Michael Whaley. “We get these numbers just to get a general pulse, and when we do get concerning drops, we open it up for discussion. Last Sunday we opened it up to the WSA because I didn’t want just the seven perspectives of the Student Life Committee.”
The results of the survey, which was most recently completed by the class of 2010, might have some explanations that are specific to that exiting class. The Fountain Avenue disturbances, which made local news after police used pepper spray, dogs, and Taser guns to disperse a crowd of about 200 intoxicated students, occurred at the end of their sophomore year.
“What happened at Fountain Avenue was an unfortunate incident,” Meyer said. “A group of students gathered during the last week of classes, which we’ve seen many times, but when we went out to try to maintain a semblance of order, people were uncooperative. We called for backup and the first police car got hit with a bottle. The people refused to disperse—they were chanting, yelling, lighting off fireworks under vehicles. When we tried to clear streets, students refused and became combative.”
Additionally, Johanna Justin-Jinich ’10, who was shot to death in Red & Black Café in May 2009, was a member of this class, which Meyer said may have affected students’ perception of safety.
“You have to look at that class year,” Meyer said. “I think that class year had several serious incidents that occurred. They were here for the Fountain Avenue disturbances and one of their classmates was murdered on campus. They’ve also seen changes through the crackdown of the open container policy and our increased presence on the hill on 4/20.”
Some students, however, pointed out that there might be more general explanations for the drop, including the extensive patrolling of party streets by PSafe vehicles.
“At the beginning of this year, I was on Warren Street and multiple PSafe cars were breaking up a party the same time that someone was getting mugged on High Street,” said WSA Representative Teddy Newmyer ’11. “It’s an isolated incident, and its obviously hard to prevent, but at some point your priorities need to be in the right place, which I would hope would be stopping people from getting mugged rather than breaking up a completely peaceful gathering.”
Meyer said that directed patrols do not affect PSafe’s ability to keep the campus safe.
“We try not to deplete the patrol coverage for one incident,” Meyer said. “Sometimes we try to control larger gatherings so they don’t get out of control, but we’re still patrolling around the rest of the campus.”
Meyer also cautioned against interpreting the figures as low relative to peer institutions, such as Williams and Middlebury, which are much more isolated.
“We’re sitting at a certain percentage, but when you compare us to other schools, our set-up and the way the University functions are important,” he said. “There is diversity of housing, we’re not isolated, there are no gates, and we have a major highway running through campus. You might think it doesn’t look good when you compare us to other schools, but we’re not really comparing the same thing.”
Nonetheless, PSafe plans to investigate the causes of the numbers and ways in which they can address the drop in confidence. According to Meyer, this may include brainstorming with the SLC and WSA, looking at statistical analysis to see what has been done differently, and hosting meetings in dorms to better factor in student input.
“Once we get that information, we can make adjustments and educate as is necessary,” he said.
At their meeting on Thursday, the SLC brought several of the concerns raised during last week’s WSA meeting to the attention of administrators.
“One of the big issues we brought up was lighting around campus, and there’s going to be a lighting tour that [Finances and Facilities Chair] Zach Malter [’13] is leading to make sure all major parts of campus are well lit,” O’Donnell said. “This is a concern that obviously is of direct interest and importance to students, but it was also a concern raised by community members.”
““People also have concerns with the new Ride,” Newmyer said. “The Ride has two distinct goals: to get people who don’t feel like walking from point A to point B, and to get people safely from point A to point B. The new system does a great job of achieving the first goal, but seems to fall short in the second goal, as waiting on a dark street for the ride can be just as dangerous as walking.”
In addition, the SLC hopes to launch practical education-related events to prepare students if they encounter confrontations. Ideas also include e-mails that tell students how to keep safe and promoting safe practices, such as leaving valuable items or bags at home, or sticking to the buddy system.
“I thought it would be good to have a crash course in the very basics of rudimentary self-defense, so you have a little understanding and confidence in your own abilities to defend yourself,” said WSA Representative Andrew Trexler ’14, who has several years of experience in self-defense.
As the WSA, PSafe, and administration form their plans, Meyer explained that the survey results did not guarantee a change in PSafe operations.
“Do I want to look into it?” he said. “Yes. But there’s going to be things that we do that may not make people happy. I want to make sure my people are doing their job and are fair and equitable in how they treat students, but if students simply don’t like what we’re enforcing, that’s not my call. The party policies were developed after major incidents; we’ve had problems in the past with underage drinking and open containers. These rules aren’t just made up—there’s reasoning behind what we do, so by enforcing these rules we are making the community safer.”
O’Donnell, who meets with Meyer regularly as SLC chair, agreed.
“I think that another thing that’s important to keep straight in student perception is that the officers are really not out to get us,” he said. “That sounds so hackneyed, but I truly believe it. They’re really nice, personable people, and I think students do have something to gain from getting to know the people who are looking out for them.”