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Editorial: University must improve actual, perceived sense of student safety

Recently as part of The Herald’s Fall 2019 poll, students were asked how safe they feel both on and off campus after dark. The results indicated that while a vast majority of students feel safe on campus after dark, about 40 percent of undergraduates — including a disproportionate number of women — feel unsafe off-campus, including on Thayer Street. Given that 28 percent of University students live in off-campus housing,  according to US News, and a much larger proportion spend their time frequenting popular off-campus destinations, these findings are highly disconcerting. In light of this survey, the University should make it a priority to improve students’ perceived and actual senses of safety and well-being in areas surrounding campus.

As shown in the fall poll, even city streets that run through or adjacent to Brown’s campus can be uneasy areas for students to traverse after dark. For example, students have described Thayer Street — the popular food destination and hub of student activity prominently bisecting campus —  as an intimidating space at night. Students emphasized these concerns in interviews with The Herald following the fall poll and discussed experiences of catcalling on Thayer in a 2017 Herald article.

There is a difference between the sense of safety reported in the fall poll and physical safety among students, but both are deserving of University attention. Students may feel safe or unsafe for a variety of reasons. For many students, for example, coming to College Hill may be their first experience residing in a city. While it is impossible to determine every reason a student may report feelings of uneasiness near campus, the percentage of undergraduates who reported feeling unsafe after dark — 40 percent — indicates that the problem necessitates investigation. In order to fully participate in college life and interact with the nearby community, students need to feel comfortable traversing streets on College Hill and occupying spaces beyond the college greens.

The University also ought to do more to address crime on College Hill, which certainly contributes to limited senses of security. This semester alone, the Brown Department of Public Safety has alerted the campus community of three situations in which students were victims of crimes — robbery and attempted robbery — on streets adjacent to Brown’s campus. Moreover, DPS, which published its annual crime report for 2019 this past October, reported a sharp increase in burglaries in the neighborhoods on College Hill, where many University students live. In 2018, 102 reported burglaries occurred in areas from Power Street to Olney Street, up from 37 in 2017. We acknowledge that College Hill will never be free of crime and that the area remains relatively safe compared to many cities nationwide, but nonetheless, it is important that the University strives to do better.

Given the importance of student safety and the room for improvement in both mitigating crime and addressing perceived security, the University should establish a working group focused on investigating the source of student concerns and ultimately improving off-campus safety on College Hill. The group could host a series of roundtable discussions to establish a formal and accessible avenue for students to explain their experiences and build on existing initiatives. These focus groups could play an integral role in ensuring that University resources are directed toward initiatives that target the source of the problems.

While there is a difference between safety and its perceived sense, there are steps the University can take now — as the working group forms — to begin addressing both concerns. For example, we urge the administration to consider how it can increase awareness of resources that are already available. Chief of Police Mark Porter recently acknowledged that perhaps “a lot of students are unaware of the safety measures we have in place.” If they were, their senses of safety off-campus may very well improve.  We encourage the University to increase student involvement with and awareness of its current efforts through the Officer/Student Dialogue Program and the DPS Listening Session Initiative for Students. These programs facilitate opportunities for students to engage in intimate dialogue with DPS officers “to share thoughts and recommendations” on “campus safety programming.” But not all students feel comfortable interacting with the police, and thus it is equally as important that Brown explore increasing awareness of its other resources, such as by incorporating a map of blue light stations and campus security guard locations in its new app, BrownU.

In addition, the University should consider installing more lighting on streets near campus. As one goes farther off-campus and the shops and University buildings become fewer and farther between, more streets become sparsely lit. Even just one block removed from Thayer, streets can be pitch dark. More extensive lighting could make students and other community members feel safer simply by improving visibility. It is important to acknowledge that the University cannot and should not provide lighting or security throughout the city of Providence; there are limits to what students consider to be “off-campus” and the University should be careful not to over-extend its presence into the city. But this simple change in certain areas could make a huge difference — through both perceived and actual enhancements of street safety.

Indeed, a recent experimental study conducted in New York City found that providing a greater number of street lights to a random sample of communities reduced crime — defined as a “subset of serious felony crimes and certain property crimes” — in the affected areas by 36 percent at night compared to peer communities. Though these findings may not be entirely generalizable to Providence and the types of crime that most commonly occur near Brown’s campus, they do suggest that more extensive street lighting could improve safety on College Hill. Ultimately, we hope that both students and the administration will be encouraged to mobilize around the issue of off-campus safety — both perceived and physical — and brainstorm meaningful solutions. While the University currently employs several measures to improve safety around campus, there is ample room for implementing new strategies as well as building on current practices that would make everyone feel more comfortable walking on the periphery of campus at night. The average Brown student has chosen to spend four years of their life on College Hill; we hope the University can take seriously its obligation to ensure that their time here feels safe and fulfilling.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Grace Layer ’20 and Krista Stapleford ’21, and its members, Dylan Tian ’21, Eduard Muñoz-Suñé ’20, Jonathan Douglas ’20 and Riley Pestorius ’21. Send comments to Send comments to


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