You'll never walk alone
After three years at college, I have become used to advice about safe sex, safe drinking, safe dancing and safe driving. But safe walking is a new one.
'Walksafe' is a scheme being piloted in Newcastle, which sells itself as 'providing a safe and reliable escort service across campus'. Any student scared of the dark can ring in between 6.30pm and 10.30pm and two well-meaning student volunteers (at least one of whom is a woman) will turn up and escort them home. For free. But why? What is it about Newcastle that makes students incapable of walking around on their own?
Walksafe is the brainchild of 27-year-old Canadian Sandra Dunkin, studying for an MA at Newcastle University. As an undergraduate at McGill university, Montreal, she was raped at a neighbouring college, and as a result became involved in the Walksafe scheme at McGill. When, earlier this year, Newcastle University warned students that somebody had been attacked on campus, she decided to set up a similar scheme. Walksafe has now been imported wholesale, and Dunkin has become a local celebrity.
There is nothing remarkable about schemes aimed at making British campuses safer. From CCTV to night-time minibuses to undercover cops on night-time minibuses, there has been a plethora of new measures to improve safety on campus - most of which are more hi-tech and imaginative than the Walksafe scheme. The only thing that is remarkable about the Walksafe scheme is that it really has very little to do with preventing attacks. There is something else going on here altogther.
All those who support Walksafe are keen to stress that Newcastle is not particularly dangerous. The local press has played up Sandra Dunkin's status as a rape survivor who 'could not bear to let another woman suffer the years of torment that she experienced' (Journal, 22 April 1997). But as she told me, 'Walksafe wouldn't have helped me in any case, because I was attacked inside a college building'. In three years in Newcastle, she has had no problems. What she values about Walksafe is less the prevention of real attacks than 'the reassurance of having someone else to walk with'.
More safe than most
Careful to defend Newcastle's reputation, the Walksafe volunteers I spoke to denied that the city was dangerous. Neither Rachel, a final year student, or Nikki, a second year, had 'ever seen any violence' - quite something if you live in a city like Newcastle. The student newspaper editorial began with the admission that 'safety is at the forefront of everybody's mind following the recent spate of attacks on students' and immediately qualified it by stating, in bold, that 'Newcastle remains by and large a safe city for students to live and study in' (Courier, 24 April 1997). Mary Barker, manager of the Newcastle Student City project which supports Walksafe, told me that 'although there is a perception that Newcastle is dangerous, the figures show that it is more safe than most large cities'. Common sense says that, unless students have chaperons constantly in tow, this scheme will never prevent the rare attacks that do take place.
But if the Walksafe scheme is not about preventing attacks, what is it about? Why are three academic institutions, a city development project and Student Community Action Newcastle so keen to pilot a scheme that will do no more than 'give reassurance' to a handful of insecure students? The press release promoting the scheme gives a clue: 'volunteers while providing a safe passage for clients will be acting as an "extra set of eyes and ears" for Northumbria Police and University Police.'
Visiting the Student Community Action Newcastle offices, where the Walksafe project is based, I realised that the scheme is less of a haphazard 'friendly escort service' than a highly organised group of auxiliary special constables. Volunteers are vetted and screened by the police, and have to commit themselves to between five and 10 hours per term. They are trained in the use of walkie-talkies and in self-defence, they are linked to the police CCTV network and when 'on duty' their radios are permanently switched on. They are under obligation to report anything suspicious to the police.
'The idea', says Nikki, 'is we are out on the streets and we are in contact with the police, so if we see anything that should not be happening, anything that looks dodgy, we will radio in. We are also connected with the CCTV people so if we say, you know, there is something dodgy happening outside Boots, they can zoom in and check out what it is'. In the second week of the pilot, there were about fifty volunteers and there had been one request for a walk. If the scheme was just about 'walking' people, 48 people would be sitting around bored in an office. Instead they are taking it in turns to prowl around town looking for trouble to report to the police. There is something slightly insidious about a scheme which talks about 'women's safety' and turns out to be about law and order.
To Rachel, the best thing about Walksafe is that the volunteers don't look like the law, because 'a lot of students have problems' dealing with the police. The student union had tried to set up a cop shop on campus, but 'students did not really like going in'. She thinks that students asking for walks because they have seen something dodgy 'will be happier telling us than they will the police' - even though they will effectively be telling the police, via the radio link. Rachel and Nikki recognise that more overt measures of campus safety - for example ID cards - would make students feel uncomfortable. 'It's a bit too much like Big Brother watching you' said Nikki. Yet isn't Walksafe simply a more nineties form of Big Brother, where you do not know that you are being watched?
The advantage of Walksafe for the authorities is precisely that it looks like a student-led, voluntary scheme. Sandra Dunkin says Walksafe is 'not as inhibitive as other security measures. It's students helping students. It's non-interference by the police, by mom and dad, by the university administration. It's up to you'. That was just before explaining that they were obliged to report incidents and that the police could be there in five minutes.
Walksafe has not been led by popular demand: of the Newcastle students I spoke to, few had heard of it and even fewer said they would use it. It is supported and funded not by students, but by the various authorities involved - all of which have an interest in creating more order on campus and in town. And while it might be 'up to us' to decide whether to be walked, it is not 'up to us' whether a bored and self-righteous volunteer with a radio and a camera reports us to the police because they decide we are doing 'something dodgy'.
Sandra Dunkin told me she was angry that the press had focused on her as a rape victim: 'That's the least relevant thing about Walksafe.' She was also adamant that Walksafe is not just 'for women', but for everybody. On these points, I agree with her.
Reproduced from LM issue 101, June 1997