Improving York safety: an ongoing mission

In the past year, York University has embarked on a determined program to upgrade security arrangements on both its campuses.

Last week’s Campus Alert about an alleged assault on Jan. 11 came just as some of the newest arrangements were being implemented, with more to come. In all, York has spent more than $3 million in additional funds on the new measures.

Above: Security personnel monitor feeds from the closed circuit television cameras positioned in various locations on York’s Keele campus

In the wake of the shocking sexual assaults at York’s Vanier Residence in September, newly arrived President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri made clear his resolve to make York’s campuses as safe as they could be.

“Our first concern, of course, has been for those directly affected by the assaults," says Gary Brewer, York’s vice-president finance & administration, "and we have been providing all the support we can for them. But we certainly recognize the broader concerns of the York community. We have been moving quite aggressively since September to implement our new measures. These are substantial improvements that are designed to provide a safe and secure environment on campus.” 

The new measures include: 

  • 22 new residence watch officers for York’s residences, now in place;
  • 128 new security cameras and 121 “intrusion alarms” for all residence exterior doors, due at the end of February;
  • the upgrade last summer of residence life staff to professional standards, working full-time;
  • an additional Toronto police presence on the Keele campus monitoring residence areas overnight;
  • from September to mid-November, additional off-duty paid police officers at the Keele campus.

As well, the University has invested in an ongoing audit program recommended by the Toronto police, known as Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED). York now has eight security staff qualified to make these audits. Over the past year, 15 have been carried out, including all residence and apartment buildings, and various office areas. 

After the hiring and training process was completed, the 22 new residence watch officers took up their posts on Jan. 13 in the eight residences on the Keele campus and the two at Glendon. These uniformed staffers work from 7:30pm to 7:30am, monitoring the building, supporting residence staff if assistance is needed, and taking over in the small hours when the porters go off duty. “They are the eyes and ears of security,” says Steve Dranitsaris, senior executive officer for finance & administration. “They fit into the community and get to know everyone.” 

Left: A closed circuit television camera

The new cameras and alarms, costing $1.3 million, are expected to be installed by the end of February, once complex upgrades to the fibre-optic network are complete. The cameras will be mounted in residence lobbies and at the exterior doors of all residences, though University officials stress that none will be installed on the residence floors where students live.  

Cameras at the exterior doors will work in tandem with the intrusion alarms. Whenever a service or emergency door is opened, the camera will move to point at the door, while an alarm will alert security staff and the image will appear on security screens. This, officials hope, will combat such longtime, but very unsafe, student practices as letting in outsiders by a backdoor route to avoid porters, or “tailgating” – an outsider following a resident through an opened door. Cameras will also be installed at York’s Assiniboine, Atkinson and Passy Gardens apartments.  

Within the residences, the residence life coordinators and managers are now full-time, professional staffers – no longer students working in their off-time (see YFile, July 30, 2007).  

Meanwhile, security staff continue to carry out the the CPTED audits. “The whole idea is to identify vulnerabilities,” says Dranitsaris. These can include poor lighting, areas where people could hide and many other factors. 

As for lighting, York has drawn up an action plan for upgrades, and has already made many improvements. Among them was the area around Winters College when the Faculty of Education moved there last year. 

The University also has an ongoing internal audit function that monitors processes and performance outcomes – including in areas such as security, housing and student life. 

On Wednesday, York’s Security Advisory Council, with wide representation from the campus community, will hold its regular meeting. On the agenda is discussion of a possible independent safety audit at York by an outside agency.  

“We remain committed to doing everything we can do to make the campus secure,” says Brewer. “And we’ll continue to re-examine our processes to see if there’s anything more we can do. There’s nothing more important than personal safety.”