How safe are college students?

For Sherie Fontenelle, life on campus was about being carefree and partying with friends.

But with the recent sexual assaults on several Ontario school campuses, she’s become less carefree and more careful.

“It usually takes something bad to happen to make you think twice about what you do,” said Fontenelle, a student at the University of Toronto at Scarborough who has lived on campus for the past two years.

“Since hearing about what happened at York [University], I’m trying to be more careful. It’s scary because it could happen here and it’s time we all realize that.”

The previous style of campus life could soon become a memory, students say.

A series of sexual assaults at three colleges in Ontario early this month has put a damper on the laid-back life at our two local campuses as security personnel encourage students to take extra precautions.

At York University, a pair of men allegedly assaulted two women and attempted to enter six dorm rooms. Police have yet to confirm whether or not the suspects, since arrested, were connected to the university, but they did confirm pass cards were used to get into the residence.

Just a few days before that, three women were reportedly groped near Laurentian University, in Sudbury. And a brutal attack on a 23-year-old female from Carleton University in Ottawa left her unconscious, tied up and sexually assaulted.

Those incidents have raised questions about how safe students are, and how safe they feel.

Are residences being targeted?

Det. Christine Long of the Toronto Police Sex Crimes Unit, is currently in charge of the York University investigation. She says these cases can happen anywhere.

“Students should always take extra precautions its just the city we live in now,” she says. “People assume that when its dark theyre at greater risk, but thats not really true. The opportunity in crime comes up whenever.”

While this may be true, some students still feel residences are being targeted.

“I think campuses with a residential area are at greater risk because [visitors] know exactly where to find [students],” said one University of Toronto at Scarborough student, who lives on campus.”If nobodys in school, you can definitely find someone at home somewhere on residence [to assault].”

Centennial Colleges science and technology centre at Morningside and Ellesmere avenues, and U. of T. Scarborough offer similar campus safety programs and facilities.

For example, they each have “WalkSafe Services” where a student may request a security guard to walk them to their car, plus late night study supervision, constant security presence and emergency help phones.

Also, campus security attempts to maintain communication with students by posting updates and safety tips on safety boards, and by sending e-mails.

Security experts say students must also play a role.

“Safety begins with the individual,” said Matt Little, coordinator of security investigations and training at Centennial College. “We can continue to offer more programs but the individual needs to take some ownership over their own personal safety and their awareness.”

One way students can get involved at Centennial College is to participate in Rape Aggression Defence (RAD) systems, a self-defence training program provided by the school. These sessions are currently for women only; however, they will soon be open to men as well.

There are some other ideas being put forward by those concerned with campus safety.

For example, having a sign-in and sign-out policy where visitors are tracked in and out of a residence at all times can be helpful, says Long. This also stops what the detective calls “piggy-backing,” where multiple visitors enter behind one resident who does not stop to find out if they belong there.

Common-sense safety tips

Officials say one of the best safety methods is also the easiest lock your doors. Some students rarely lock their door because friends drop by frequently, and theyre not really expecting a stranger to walk in.

Long says these safety procedures should be applied in general, and not just because of what happened at another university.

“Dorms must engage the same security devices that people do in apartment buildings or office buildings,” she says. “They are no different from any apartment dwelling.”

When it comes to safety in general, Long says students must be educated constructively about sexual assault and harassment, and speak up. In other words, no matter how minor the incident, report it.

“You dont know if the offender is just building his courage to see how far he can get. [Paul] Bernardo started off as a Peeping Tom.” Long says. “So always report to police because you dont know to what degree an offender will escalate.”

Most importantly, be aware.

“Im not saying to be jaded or paranoid or rude,” Long said. “Im saying you must be in control of your own life.”