McGill, News

Safety concerns loom as WALKSAFE and DriveSafe halt operations

Content warning: Discussion of physical and sexual violence.

Two volunteer-based security services on campus are halting operations, with a firm date for resumption yet to be determined. Run by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), WALKSAFE announced the suspension of their regular services on Facebook Sept. 13, following SSMU DriveSafe’s similar announcement on Sept. 3.

WALKSAFE president Leon Picha, U2 Management, attributed the shutdown to limited staffing and phone line complications during the SSMU University Centre’s multi-year closure.

“As the University Centre moved, we did not have access to our landline for some time and we actually do not have access to the WALKSAFE phone,” Picha said. “But also we do not have enough volunteers. A lot of our volunteers have graduated and, if we were to operate, we predicted that volunteers would have to do three times their original commitment.”

Tiffany Leung, vice president (VP) operations at DriveSafe, also blamed their services’ suspension solely on their inability to access the landline. The issue of DriveSafe’s hiatus is currently being handled by SSMU representatives.

While both services have been out of day-to-day operations since March 2020, they have still provided security services by special arrangement, like both services’ helping out during  Frosh Week and Drivesafe’s partnership with the Montreal Student Initiative for COVID-19 Response and Relief.

SSMU vice president (VP) student life, Karla Heisele Cubilla, explained that COVID-19 has also played a role in disrupting the operations of services like WALKSAFE.

“The pandemic has been really rough on our services and our clubs,” Cubilla said. “The government keeps giving us updates daily, and it takes time to plan how a service is going to be run.”

According to Yossef Levin, Med 3 and former WALKSAFE volunteer, the service suffered internal difficulties such as understaffing even before the pandemic.

“When I was part of WALKSAFE during my bachelor degree, we operated on tight staffing, and often they would ask people to help fill out shifts,” Levin said. “Many of the executives would take on an excessive amount of shifts from what I remember [….] There were days when they had to cancel services because of understaffing. This happened every so often, especially in 2019.”

(Brian Schatteman / The McGill Tribune)

The shutdowns have left some newcomers to Montreal uncertain of how to stay safe on and around campus. Sarah*, U1 Arts and Science, was disappointed to hear that the security services on campus had been suspended.

“Coming from a small town, my family and I had concerns with a lot of what you hear about the city,” Sarah said. “But then looking at these services that McGill provides, and knowing that they existed, was quite comforting. Getting here, and realizing that they are not in operation, was a bit nerve-racking.”

Earlier this month, Sarah was walking downtown with her roommates when they witnessed an assault. She attempted to reach WALKSAFE the following evening. 

“We saw this girl in front of us get aggressively groped,” Sarah said. “The next day, I had an appointment late at night and thought, ‘I should use WALKSAFE,’ but was not able to.”

The shutdowns come on the heels of grave campus incidents elsewhere in Canada. In the early morning hours of Sept. 11, an 18-year-old student at Western University in London, Ontario, died of injuries sustained in an assault on a street adjacent to campus. In addition, four separate cases of sexual assault were reported to Western campus authorities during the week of Sept. 6.

Lapses in current security offerings are unacceptable, argued U3 Arts student Mikaela Fasold. Remarking on the dwindling security options available to students, Fasold called on volunteers to rise to the occasion.

“Students now have even fewer resources […] short of building their own buddy system or gambling that campus security can always be there to provide protection,” Fasold said. 

“The onus lies on all of us to step up.”

Emergency aid can be reached through a Security Services Safety Escort  (Downtown: 514-398-30000. MacDonald campus: 514-398-7777). The Sexual Assault Center of the McGill Student’s Society hotline is 514-398-8500. McGill Students’ Nightline can be reached at 514-398-6246. SSMU WALKSAFE and SSMU DriveSafe are actively recruiting, see their respective Facebook pages for more details. 

*Sarah’s name has been changed to preserve their anonymity.

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