How York works to improve safety on campus – and off

Safety has been on everyone’s mind at York University in the wake of the April death of York student Qian Liu in The Village, the private residential development just south of the Keele campus, and recent incidents of assault and theft. The University has brought in many new measures to improve safety on its campuses. But what it can do beyond its borders is a more complicated situation.

As part of its response to the more than 100 issues raised in a safety report commissioned by York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri and conducted by the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC), the University reconstituted The Village at York Town and Gown Committee to address concerns it shares with the community south of Assiniboine Road. Such committees are common in the close to 150 Canadian communities that host one or more colleges or universities, often near private rental housing for students that has existed for decades.

On campus, York’s commitment to safety and security is ongoing. After the METRAC report was issued in June 2010, York continued to augment security measures as part of its $8.9-million annual safety effort, an increase of $535,000 over the previous year. York has also budgeted for the hiring of additional security officials to expand its current force of 24 at the Keele campus. A further eight security staff watch over the Glendon campus for a total of 32 front-line response personnel, all of whom are supported by a network of more than 660 CCTV cameras, security telephones and emergency video screens.

Last year, York spent $200,000 on improved lighting in key areas and plans a similar investment in each of the next three years. Added to this are such security features as:

  • Security cameramore than 300 emergency and safety phones outdoors, in parking garages, in classrooms and in corridors of campus buildings;
  • a goSAFE program that escorts students to class, residences, parking and transit;
  • the Campus Shuttle with a designated route which includes stops in The Village;
  • strategically located campus TV screens for communicating safety messages;
  • residences equipped with door alarms and CCTV cameras (right) to limit unwanted intrusions.

This week York produced a new video (above) that tours some of the University’s key safety features. York security officials also note that the campus crime rate is seven times lower than the crime rate per 1,000 people across the City of Toronto. More information is available in the downloadable document Safety and Security at York University.

But The Village, part of the City of Toronto, is a more complex challenge.

“York University is interested in what transpires in The Village given the large student population, supportive by way of the Campus Shuttle and involved by way of active stewardship of the town and gown committee,” says Richard Francki, York’s assistant vice-president, campus services & business operations. “However, York and its various constituents have to be cognizant that it has no legal jurisdiction to act outside of the University’s property boundaries.”

York security officersWhile they can’t patrol The Village itself, York security officers (right) are keeping a close eye on the south end of the campus, patrolling the parking lot and the areas around the York Apartments at Assiniboine Road and Passy Crescent, says Rob Kilfoyle, York’s director of security services. He also notes that York has 22 staff stationed in residences focusing on access control and security as part of the Residence Watch Program set up in 2008.

Dealing with incidents off campus requires a framework of cooperation among key stakeholders, including area residents, 85 per cent of whom rent their accommodation from property owners who don’t live in the neighbourhood. The town and gown committee includes representatives from the three main stakeholder groups: Toronto’s municipal services – police, fire, and licensing & standards staff, as well as Councillor Anthony Perruzza; representatives of The Village at York Residents Association and the York Federation of Students; and York University officials. It is chaired in turn by the leading member of each. Rob Tiffin, York’s vice-president students, took the chair at the first meeting on March 18.

Together, the committee members are looking at how to navigate the complexities of increasing safety and security on private property with a significant short-term population of students living in homes that have been converted into rooming houses, some with as many as 16 rooms. Adding to the challenge is the fact that some of the residents’ complaints involve friction between homeowners and long-term renters with student and non-student roomers.

Recent media stories have reported that conditions in some of the renovated townhomes in The Village do not meet building code requirements and, since the North York bylaws governing rental housing have not been changed since amalgamation in 1998, many are alleged to be illegal. Enforcing standards in this context can be a costly and complex legal exercise.

One of the key outcomes of the first meeting of the town and gown committee was the formation of a city-convened working group to look at licensing best practices in other jurisdictions and fire safety standards to put forward to the city to address concerns identified in The Village.

The University will continue to work closely with the other committee members to gain improved conditions in The Village. On campus, meanwhile, security and safety is a top priority.

For more information, visit the York Safety website.