Which campus spaces are your students most afraid of?

Our StudentVu panel has taught us that students generally feel safe on Canadian campuses. But this doesn’t tell the whole story, because different student groups have very different levels of exposure to threats and violence. As we’ll find out in this piece, students also feel very differently about different campus spaces. 

When it comes to students’ feelings of safety, not all campus spaces are experienced the same way by everyone. Some students consistently express greater feelings of safety in some places than in others, and institutions will need to know the difference if they want to help students feel safe no matter where they go on campus. 

We asked our StudentVu panel how they felt about different spaces on Canadian campuses, and received some compelling results. 

Students feel least safe at parking lots, bus stops

We asked our panelists how safe they felt at a number of different locations connected to campus, and found that some locations fared much better than others. Students reported feeling safest in classrooms, libraries, and faculty/staff offices. Students indicated that they felt less safe, though, at parking lots, bus stops, and sidewalks/paths. They also generally felt safer in the mornings and afternoons compared to evenings and nights.

How safe do students feel on campus?

Click to zoom. Mean score, where 1=Very Unsafe and 5=Very Safe

Women were much more likely than men to report lower feelings of safety at sidewalks and paths (3.5 compared to 3.9, respectively), parking lots (3.1 to 3.7), and bus stops (3.3 to 3.9). Overall, women reported feeling less safe at every campus location, including the offices of faculty and staff members. Those identifying their gender as other reported even lower levels of feeling safe at all campus locations. 

38% of those identifying their gender as other said they felt “unsafe” in parking lots, compared to 6% of men. Both women and those who identified as other were twice as likely to report they felt unsafe in residences (6%) compared to men (3%). 

What are students saying?

Beyond sheer numbers, the qualitative feedback from our StudentVu panel helped to paint a picture of how many students felt about the safety of their campus. Some, for example, indicated that they felt very safe: 

“Despite my school being in a downtown location, and being a common walk-through area for non-students, I feel very safe in my day-to-day activities.”

"I find my university does a good job in making things known and where to go for acts of violence and aggression."

However, other students suggested that they felt very little confidence in the safety of their campus and/or the school’s ability and motivation to make the campus safer:

“Colleges need to make a better effort to inform students when there is an attack on campus rather than just post information on college community boards. Pretty sure all of our emergency poles are ‘out of service’ and would be useless during an emergency.”

Based on the public history of sexual assault at my school and as a volunteer at the sexual assault centre, I am 100% confident that my school would not do anything to support me if I were sexually assaulted on campus. Sexual assault is especially prevalent in residences and the administration does nothing when students report it.
— StudentVu Panelist

Other students suggested that they felt more vulnerable to violence based on having a disability or on being a member of a racially marginalized group:

"I am a Deaf student so I am vulnerable to violence and even more I have less options of contacting help since I cannot use the phone or communicate easily."

I’m terrified to be on my campus. This is exacerbated by death threats I’ve received based on being an Indigenous person. There has been arson, breaking and enterings, and defacement/vandalism of Indigenous spaces on campus. I’m scared I will or my friends will end up being another MMIW [missing or murdered Indigenous woman] at my campus.
— StudentVu Panelist

All of these findings demonstrate that institutions have a significant challenge in ensuring that all students feel safe and secure on their campuses. Responding to this challenge effectively means gathering reliable research on how the issue of safety plays out for real students at different times and in different spaces.

“Once students have indicated specific locations where they feel less safe, universities and colleges can put additional focus on these areas,” says Meranda McLaughlin, Program Advisor with the Government of New Brunswick and former Policy and Research Analyst for the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission. “For example, universities can educate and train potential first responders, such as residence proctors, campus security, safe ride personnel, and so forth. In addition, universities can reinforce that sexual violence will not be tolerated and remind students where to go for help if they experience certain behaviours.”   

McLaughlin’s comments point to an urgent need for schools to identify and address problematic spaces, a thought that was supported by the number of students who were dissatisfied with the way their schools dealt with certain spaces. One student spoke of such an instance:

“My school's specific situation involved repeated attempts at sexual assault in a highly unlit, wooded area on campus, which many students had to walk through daily to get to school … I worked on-campus and would frequently be stopped by security and told I shouldn't be walking to work alone. This was insulting to me as a woman just trying to do her job, I don't have personal escorts.”

Hearing this kind of feedback from students is invaluable for any institution, as it gives key insight into how that school can foster greater feelings of safety—the bedrock of a positive PSE experience. 

Overall, the findings of this study suggest that institutions should gather data on which campus locations might put students more at risk than others, along with data on why students might find some of these locations more unsafe than others. Doing so will allow schools to take more proactive measures to address students’ perceptions and help them feel safer on campus. 

If you are interested in learning more about how Academica Group can offer a more tailored and thorough version of this study for your school’s efforts to promote campus safety, we would love to connect. Just contact us as your convenience. 

At Academica Group, we’re proud to work with hundreds of committed, passionate higher ed professionals who want to drive improvement at their institutions. By providing enhanced research capacity and expert guidance, we allow these professionals to work beyond resource limitations and seize more opportunities to positively impact the lives of their students, colleagues, and campus communities.

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