Elinoam Abramov: GW needs to tone down its campus safety rhetoric

Read an opposing viewpoint to this piece by contributing opinions editor Sarah Blugis here.

I arrived at GW as an exchange student from the University of Edinburgh eight weeks ago. During my short time here, campus safety has dominated the news, student conversations and University communications.

From a former president’s offensive remarks about campus rape, to a sexual assault reported at an on-campus fraternity house, to a series of attempted sexual assaults reported across Northwest D.C. in the span of a few hours last week. From last year’s rising number of on-campus burglaries and alcohol and drug violations. The fact that GW logged 18 reports of domestic violence on campus in 2013 alone.

Obviously, stories about crime and security are always going to be more prominent than positive stories, both in the news and minds of students. But at GW, I’m thinking about safety more than ever before. Even well-meaning strangers have advised me about which neighborhoods I should avoid at night – and which I should avoid at all times. With this nonstop attention to potential dangers, it’s no wonder some students feel unsafe on our campus.

All universities are challenged with educating students about safety without scaring them into becoming social recluses. But I’ve noticed that GW tends to lean toward hyper-awareness and caution.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of safety measures GW takes. While initiatives such as campus police, 4-RIDE, blue light phones and sexual assault response teams are mainstays at American universities, they are exceptions to the rule in the U.K.

In my experience, security initiatives back at home are less robust and tend to focus more on prevention through education than law enforcement intervention. That’s why it’s been a surprise to see people take such weighty precautions here.

While I commend the University for both establishing these services and emphasizing their availability to students, the constant information blasts about campus security can make us feel overly concerned – as opposed to the desired effect of serving as a reassurance.

I’m not a naturally fearful person, but stepping outside has begun to feel like entering a minefield of possible danger, so I’ve been reluctant to explore parts of the city by myself. And that’s unfortunate, because getting to know D.C. is integral to the study abroad experience, and was one of the things I was most excited about doing.

Granted, Edinburgh is generally a safer city than D.C. The District earned the title “murder capital” during the 1990s. By contrast, a study that compared the number of burglaries and violent crimes across the major college towns in the U.K. found that Edinburgh had one of the lowest rates.

But the difference in perceptions of safety goes beyond this disparity. I’m struck by the fact that, unlike those at Edinburgh, students at GW don’t feel any safer among their peers. For instance, Jodie Stempel, a third-year sustainable development student at my home institution, told me, “I feel much safer at a club during a student night, than any other regular night. Students are just less likely to commit crimes against other students.” Whether or not that’s statistically true, I haven’t heard this sentiment from GW students at all.

The college experience is not just about developing academically, it also encompasses our most formative years personally. Of course, we can’t be completely reckless and should take smart, reasoned safety precautions, but we shouldn’t live in fear of discovering new places and perhaps leaving our established comfort zones. Worries about safety should not discourage students from living out their college experiences.

Elinoam Abramov, a junior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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