Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Saturday, April 21, 2018

Straight from print: Inside AU Public Safety’s escort service

Rise in local crime poses risk for students living off-campus

Straight from print: Inside AU Public Safety’s escort service

AU's Department of Public Safety offers a safe escort service to any University owned property. However, it does not offer the service to any non-University off-campus locations, such as the popular Berkshire apartments on Massachusetts Avenue. 

Lucca Vaselli, a senior in the School of Communication, was on his way back home from a late-night gym session around 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 22. Walking down Massachusetts Ave., he quickly talked to a friend, and started again toward his apartment at The Avalon at Foxhall building.

With his head down and headphones in his ears, Vaselli noticed three men swirling around him on the bridge into his building. Thinking nothing of them at first, his fear quickly heightened when they pointed a gun to him and demanded, “wallet, passport, phone.”

Vaselli gave the attackers everything he had, and they fled. Running back to his apartment where no one was home or at the front desk, he ran down the hall to a friend to call for help.

This incident is one in a string of crimes in local neighborhoods over the last few months. The area saw at least five robberies in January and four in February, not including an unarmed carjacking in Tenleytown that occurred in early March.

The increase in crime has put students on edge, particularly those living off-campus, leaving some to wonder what AU services are available to help keep individuals safe as they navigate the AU area at night.

Escort system

AU’s Department of Public Safety offers an around-the-clock escort system, in which officers can walk with a student or drive them upon request to any University-owned property. Students can also use the Blue Light Phones on campus, located at blue pillars that read “EMERGENCY,” if they need to call the dispatch center for Public Safety, said Kelly Alexander, AU’s director of public relations who speaks on behalf of the department of public safety.

“The University Police and Department of Public Safety offer the escort system to ensure that students feel safe traveling around campus,” Alexander said.

Rima Sifri, a Public Safety police lieutenant and crime prevention coordinator, oversees and manages the programs that promote student safety. She said that the on-campus escort system includes the WAMU building at 4401 Connecticut Ave., offices at 4200 Wisconsin Ave. and the Spring Valley building at 4801 Massachusetts Ave. This does not include The Berkshire or Avalon at Foxhall apartments on Massachusetts Avenue, two popular locations for AU students living off-campus.

DPS does not offer an off-campus escort system.

Alexander said she is not familiar with the exact reason why the University does not have an off-campus escort system, but said that a lack of resources, manpower and equipment prevent AU’s police department from creating its own service of this kind. Instead, Alexander encouraged students to use the buddy system in order to stay safe when walking home at night.

Sifri said that some students have also tried to create a similar service, but that the University cannot create such a system because of liability concerns.

“There have been some students who have proposed a student-run escort system, and we found that in terms of risk management and liability, it just wouldn’t be feasible,” Sifri said. “So that’s why we don’t have it. We can’t have student employees doing that. You want to make sure it’d be safe.”

Avantika Shenoy, a junior in the School of Public Affairs, lives off campus with a few other girls from her sorority.

“It’s terrifying living off campus,” she said. “These robberies are happening a street or two away from our house.”

AU falls behind other D.C. universities in offering this kind of service. Both George Washington University and Georgetown University offer an off-campus escort service to their students.

GW’s system, called 4Ride, offers free rides to students around the Foggy Bottom campus.

Similarly, Georgetown has a Saferides system, which provides students, staff and faculty with free rides around the Georgetown and Foxhall neighborhoods. Georgetown’s service begins at 8 p.m. and runs until 2 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on weekends.

The Georgetown University Police Department also offers individual escorts for students in the same region if Saferides is not in service and they feel unsafe.

Alexander still encouraged students to call Public Safety if they are in a compromising situation, though it is not clearly stated by the department that a request for an escort during such an occurrence would be fulfilled.

“The goal is to ensure that you’re safe,” Alexander said. “So, if you come into a situation where you feel like you need an escort, I would still say call Public Safety and tell them what you’re in need of, and they’ll do their best to help you.”

For community members who commute to campus, Sifri said that the Rave Guardian Campus Safety app is another option. The app allows students to set a timer when they leave a location and turn it off when they reach their destination. When they set the timer, Public Safety is notified and can track the person’s location virtually until they reach their destination. If the user does not deactivate the timer before it expires, campus police are automatically notified.

“That will help people going to The Berkshire and The Avalon,” Sifri said. “That timer on the app allows the information to pop up in dispatch and we keep an eye on you virtually.”

Sifri warns students to be alert and aware of their surroundings and if a situation feels dangerous or risky, to find a safe place.

“We want to help them get through it,” Sifri said. “We’re here to help, and we’re here to give you options.”

Student-run escort options

The recent rise in crime prompted Avantika Shenoy, a junior in the School of Public Affairs, to join AU Safewalk, a Facebook group that offers a buddy system for students who commute to and from campus.

AU Safewalk currently has 183 members. The page’s description tells students to post when they need a walking buddy or when they’re available to be a walking buddy. As of April 5, the last post was made on Jan. 6.

However, Ray Scheinman, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and the founder of AU Safewalk, said that anonymity is important to the group. This is why not many posts are made in the group. She said that it is difficult to provide safe spaces while maintaining anonymity, as people are afraid to speak up when they need help.

“I live off campus, and I stay on-campus pretty late, until 3 a.m. in the library sometimes,” Sheroy said. “Getting home at that time, I don’t want to spend money on Uber and the shuttle doesn’t run. I just thought that having a community would help me go back home.”

But Shenoy said that the rise in crime around the AU area has made living off-campus on River Road a stressful experience.

“It’s pretty terrible,” Shenoy said. “I live in a house with five other girls [and] it’s definitely scary living off-campus. These robberies are happening a street or two away from our house. One of my friends got mugged recently. Walking alone right now is not the best thing to do.”

nturner@theeagleonline.com and ekhan@theeagleonline.com


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