Protecting Our Kids on Campus

Which institutions take complaints seriously? Which have zero-tolerance policies? Reader’s Digest looks at schools of higher learning across the land. Here’s what you need to know

1 / 6

Early on a September morning in 2007, two men entered a Canadian university residence undetected. It was just hours after a campus pub night that followed the second day of classes. Students in the coed dorm had reportedly posted their names on their doors to introduce themselves to their new residence-mates-which may have helped the intruders find female-occupied rooms.

Students later reported that the men entered several rooms, but left after being scared away or discovering a group of people inside. Eventually they found an unlocked room where a lone woman slept. They took turns raping her, raped another woman in a second room and then fled.

Less than two weeks later, police arrested two men. They were charged with break and enter, sexual assault and forcible confinement. Important questions remain unanswered: How did they gain access to secure dorms? Why were the victims’ rooms unlocked? Why didn’t other students report the suspicious men roaming through the dormitory?

While the campus rape case may be an extreme example, it shows how potential holes in security and students’ trusting natures can combine to make them easy crime targets. To students, universities feel safe and secure, and they often leave dorm rooms unlocked and property unattended.

“Students go into places like student pubs and believe that just because others are there, they are safe,” says Bob Ferguson, director of campus safety at the University of Saskatchewan. “It isn’t necessarily so.”

Any illusion that Canadian campuses are safe havens from serious crime was shattered on the day of the Montreal Massacre-December 6, 1989-when a gunman killed 13 female students and a school employee at the Ecole Polytechnique before committing suicide. Then, on August 24, 1992, professor Valery Fabrikant shot four colleagues to death at Concordia University in Montreal.

The city reeled in shock once again on September 13, 2006, when a man opened fire at Dawson College, killing 18-year-old Anastasia De Sousa and injuring 16 others.

These shootings, and the 2007 rampage at Virginia Tech that claimed 33 lives, including the shooter’s, were wake-up calls to Canadian universities, which have been rethinking security for two decades now. “Virginia Tech shook us to the bone,” says Lanny Fritz, director of campus security at the University of Calgary. “Now we are trying to figure out what more we can do.”

2 / 6
So, just how safe are universities?

So, just how safe are universities?

In Canada, that’s a well-kept secret. Unlike in the United States-where the rape and murder of a 19-year-old student in her dorm led to the 1990 Clery Act-Canadian universities are not required to disclose crime statistics.

And many aren’t willing to: When Reader’s Digest asked 52 public universities for crime statistics and safety information, 19 schools refused or didn’t respond to repeated requests.

The majority of those 19 responded only when we went through freedom-of-information procedures.

These universities included some of Canada’s most prominent ones: the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, Ryerson University, Dalhousie University and the University of Ottawa. (And some of the 19 schools never responded at all.)

National figures are no easier to come by. Statistics Canada doesn’t track data specifically about crime in post-secondary communities. Yet Canadian students face unique personal safety risks at university. Forty-five percent of female college and university students say they’ve been sexually assaulted-meaning any unwanted sexual activity-since leaving high school. About one third of Canadian students report heavy drinking patterns. And 29 percent of students report experiencing “elevated psychological distress.”

Students are more at risk during the first three months of the academic year, and first-year students away from home for the first time are the most vulnerable, according to Rod Curran, director of Special Constable Service at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., and president of the Ontario Association of College and University Security Administrators. “Security was really heightened at Ontario universities after Dawson College. In the last four years, we’ve made strides like you cannot believe,” Curran says. “But don’t forget: Universities are open facilities. You can’t have doors locked and have guards running around all over the place.”

3 / 6
Residence Security-Personal and Property

Residence Security-Personal and Property

Ultimately, staying safe on campus often comes down to common sense. “The biggest problem that we have with students, especially first-year students, is that they don’t want to lock their doors,” says Curran. “They go visit a friend for three minutes and when they come back, their laptop is stolen.”

A key or pass card is now often required to get into many Canadian dormitories, but criminals gain entry by “tailgating” (slipping in behind a student with a key). Curran emphasizes how education is key to preventing criminals from entering dorms. A couple of years ago, Wilfrid Laurier was struggling with laptop theft from dorms, but since implementing an aggressive education campaign, Curran has seen more students locking their doors and reporting strangers, and says theft has decreased. “Most of the residences house only 300 people, so you know everybody,” he says. “If you recognize someone who shouldn’t be there, question them and then call campus security.” Curran says that safeguarding residences against theft makes them safer overall.

However, while theft is a problem, sexual assault is a much more serious one, with potential long-term consequences. Victims report experiencing anger, confusion and fear; the vast majority are traumatized for up to a year or more, have trouble concentrating on their courses and sometimes drop out.

While cases like the dorm rapes attract a lot of media attention, rapes by strangers are not the most prevalent: A full 82 percent of sexual assaults on Canadian campuses involve people known to each other. “Stranger-to-stranger violence is nowhere near as common as sexual assaults committed by dates and acquaintances,” says Walter DeKeseredy, a criminology professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa.

In a 1993 national study looking at abuse in university and college dating relationships, DeKeseredy and co-researcher Martin Schwartz found that 28 percent of female students reported being sexually assaulted in a 12-month period by someone they knew. Fifteen percent had given in to unwanted intercourse when under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Nor does the problem seem to be going away. In a 2004 Statistics Canada paper, students age 15 and over reported 177,000 incidents of sexual assault, up from 145,000 in 1999. Yet schools are hesitant to address the issue, says DeKeseredy. “University and college administrators try to present the dangers as being rare and coming from outside,” he says. “Most are reluctant to say that sexual assault against female university and college students is a problem. They are scared that this will affect their enrolment, that parents will be reluctant to let their kids go to these schools.”


Dance music was pumping, the bass so loud it shook the room. A large crowd laughed at the dancing silhouettes of four students who twisted their hips and flailed their arms to the groove-but the laughter stopped abruptly when one of the students was seen to slip a date-rape drug into another’s drink. “I didn’t understand. It was only my second drink,” the woman moaned later to the now-silent room. “It felt like I was being buried alive.”

Luckily, this isn’t a real situation, but rather a scene in SEXXXY 2008, an orientation-week performance at the University of Calgary. The play-which takes on difficult topics such as sexual assault, eating disorders, substance abuse and discrimination-was conceived at the University of Waterloo in 1988 as Single and Sexy, and has since been adapted at 16 other colleges and universities across Canada.

“In the early days, when the University of Calgary had their first orientation programs, I would get maybe 40 students who would sign up for sexual-harassment clinics,” says University of Calgary harassment advisor Shirley Voyna Wilson. “There had to be a better way to reach students and let them know that if they run into a problem, there are on-campus resources that can help.” This fresh approach helped draw 2,500 students to the play last year.

4 / 6
Mental Health

Mental Health

“Mental health is a huge issue on our campus and most others right now,” says Phil Wood, dean of students at McMaster University in Hamilton. He points to three trends: “A greater incidence of significant mental-health issues, things like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia; students who are a threat to themselves or others; and a general decline in student mental health.”

Data from the few Canadian universities that collect mental-health statistics are telling. At the University of British Columbia (UBC), 13 percent of male undergraduate students and 11 percent of female undergrads seriously considered suicide at least once in 2008. According to UBC Student Health Service director Dr. Patricia Mirwaldt, students said stress affects academic performance more than any other issue. In fact, six of the top seven reasons UBC students gave for academic difficulties were mental-health related: stress, sleep problems, depression, anxiety, concern for troubled family and friends, relationship difficulties and nonacademic use of the Internet.

Sometimes even the most energetic and engaged students struggle with their mental health. Eighteen-year-old Nadia Kajouji of Brampton won prestigious awards in the National Defence youth Cadet program, volunteered at a soup kitchen, was a top member of her school’s debating club, earned excellent marks and was accepted into Carleton University’s public affairs and policy management program, with a goal of attending law school. All seemed well until March 2008, when her mother, Deborah Chevalier, received a call from the university informing her that her daughter was missing.

Kajouji’s body was found in the Rideau River six weeks after her disappearance-an apparent suicide. Chevalier later learned that her daughter had been treated for depression at Carleton and that her roommate had alerted security that she was suicidal. Yet the family was never contacted. “This is not someone who didn’t seek help through the proper channels,” Chevalier says. “Families should be advised when a doctor feels that a student is suicidal.”


Navigating privacy laws while trying to help depressed or suicidal students is a tricky balancing act for universities. On the one hand, first-year students away from home for the first time may benefit from the university contacting their families, but students 18 years old and older are adults under the law and are entitled to privacy.

British Columbia Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis recognized this dilemma when he heard about a suicide at UBC four years before Kajouji’s death. After Kajouji died, he approached his counterpart in Ontario about creating a resource tool to guide universities and colleges in interpreting privacy laws and to identify when it is permissible to contact a student’s parents. The document was published last fall for use in Ontario and British Columbia; the University of Victoria is currently considering it.

“The number one lesson to be learned from those types of tragedies is that privacy laws aren’t a barrier to saving lives,” says Loukidelis, explaining that privacy laws can be overridden when a person is determined to be a risk to themselves or others. “In crisis, err on the side of life. Life trumps privacy.”

The University of Waterloo has approached the problem by taking suicide prevention outside of the counselling centre. As a part of its QPR (Question, Persuade and Refer) Suicide Prevention Program, the university has trained 1,400 students, staff and faculty members to recognize suicidal tendencies and how to help. Waterloo also has a dozen counsellors stationed in buildings where students live and study. These counsellors are able to identify students, faculty and staff in need who might not otherwise approach a central counselling office.

Last year, a professor newly trained in QPR noticed when a female student left the classroom, visibly distraught. Another student alerted the professor that she might be in danger; he ended the class and alerted counsellors, who found the woman in a bathroom stall cutting herself. Because he was well-informed about Waterloo’s services, the professor was able to quickly get a counsellor there to help the student.

5 / 6
Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol Abuse

Liquor is a contributing factor in many campus safety incidents, such as sexual assaults and other forms of violence. Two in five Canadian undergraduate students report at least one symptom of hazardous drinking, such as memory loss.

The University of Calgary’s Lanny Fritz has come to believe that “if we didn’t have alcohol establishments and events on campus, security costs could be reduced and calls for police assistance and ambulance calls would likely be reduced by 30 percent.”

Where you live can determine how much you drink. Students in Quebec and British Columbia are less likely to develop harmful drinking habits, while the heaviest drinkers are found in Atlantic Canada, a 2004 national survey showed. Last year, Memorial University in Newfoundland identified alcohol abuse as a major issue to tackle when another survey revealed that 56 percent of its students binge drink. This was the highest rate among the universities that participated. Twenty-eight percent of Memorial students were injured under the influence of alcohol and 25 percent had unprotected sex. Since 2006, the university has offered a confidential online or in-person alcohol-screening program to help students determine if they have a drinking problem.

A study conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that heavy drinking was “significantly higher” for students living on campus. It also found that campus environments, with campus-bar promotions such as happy hour and all-you-can-drink events, are conducive to heavy drinking. Peer pressure is also a problem, as students may base their drinking decisions on false perceptions of how much others are consuming. In a study of three universities, for example, 67 percent of students thought the typical student had had five or more drinks the last time they partied, while in reality only 24 percent of students did. Most students-65 percent, it turns out-never drink five or more drinks in one sitting.


First-year Queen’s University student Robyn Meilleur* was partying on campus one night during frosh week last year. It was her first experience drinking alcohol; she didn’t know her limit and became very intoxicated. Her friends brought her to the school’s Campus Observation Room, a nonmedical detox centre intended to minimize the risk of alcohol-related injury or death. There, she met student volunteer Elizabeth Kellett, who comforted her as she fell asleep, crying and drunk.

“I remember her saying she was so sorry, over and over again,” Kellett says. “I just sat there and held her hand, trying to be comforting.” Meilleur’s embarrassment quickly turned to gratitude and she approached Kellett on campus a few days later to thank her.

The key to the centre’s success, says Kellett, is that it’s confidential and nonjudgemental. “Volunteers and staff are not people who are going to frown upon this,” she says. “It’s people who really care about you.” During the last academic year, 168 students were assisted; some students who used the service later became volunteers.

6 / 6
Campus Emergencies

Campus Emergencies

In October 2008 a man in Britain came across a troubling message on the Internet: a death threat against two Memorial University professors. The writer detailed how she planned to act out the threat later that day during a specified class. The man immediately contacted St. John’s police. Within minutes of the call, officers were on campus and, working with university officials under Memorial’s emergency response plan, located the threatened professors and cancelled their classes. The campus computer where the threat had been typed that morning was quickly identified and a suspect was arrested.

Memorial’s prompt response is a testament to how seriously universities take potential violence, and schools have been turning to technology to make their campuses safer. In the past four years, Wilfrid Laurier University has expanded from ten to 236 security cameras that are monitored 24 hours a day. York University boasts more than 600 cameras. The University of Waterloo has implemented a multimedia emergency alert system that can connect with students and faculty by text message, phone, voice mail, central speakerphones and computer alerts.


Although high-tech security is the trend on campuses, there are also simpler strategies to mitigate risks. York University has embraced security principles known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. For instance, windows can be installed between a lab and a hallway to increase “natural surveillance.” Outdoor landscaping can be tailored to improve sightlines, define campus borders or discourage access to vulnerable places, such as ground-level windows.

In the fallout of the Virginia Tech rampage, the governor of Virginia issued a report stating that university staff knew of numerous incidents involving the shooter that warned of mental instability and threatening behaviour. Yet university staff and faculty didn’t communicate their concerns with one another or act on indications that the shooter was disturbed.

In response to these revelations, McMaster University created a Behaviour Response Team. A small group-representatives from residences, security and counselling-discuss students who may be a threat to themselves or others, share information and determine a course of action. When a teaching assistant recently reported a threat she spotted on Facebook, the team was quickly able to assess the risk, bring in police and suspend the student. The school then performed a psychological risk assessment and determined the student could return to classes, with mandatory counselling

Newsletter Unit