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‘Mind Yourself, And Your Mates’: Student Personal Safety Advice from USI President

As the President of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) – the national representative body for the 374,000 students in third level education on the island of Ireland – I aim to improve and protect the lives of students every day on academic and social issues through campaigns, training and research. As the evenings get darker, personal safety becomes a key concern for students, not only in their area, but on their very own campus.

How do we know personal safety is a concern? In 2014, USI conducted flagship research alongside Cosc (The National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence) on ‘Students’ Experiences of Harassment, Stalking, Violence and Sexual Assault’. The ‘Say Something’ study was the first online study of its kind and scale to be conducted in Ireland.

The study found that 11% of the women who responded noted that they had been subject to unwanted sexual contact. 16% of students reported having experienced some form of unwanted sexual experience while in their current educational institution. In over six in ten cases (61% for women, 68% for men) the perpetrator was believed to be under the influence of alcohol. In over six in ten cases (64% for women, 62%t for men) the victim themselves were under the influence of alcohol at the time.

Take note on the effects of alcohol and drugs on your behaviour and perceptions. It’s not okay to invade someone’s personal safety if you’re under the influence, and it shouldn’t be given or accepted as a fair and valid excuse. Ask consent regardless of the situation.

The ‘Say Something’ questionnaire asked students a series of questions about their personal safety on-campus and in particular whether they felt safe and what actions them feel less safe. 99% felt safe always or most of the time during the day walking around on their own campus. This proportion falls considerably at night-time where 62% don’t feel fully safe walking around on their own campus.

What can we do to make students feel safe?
First, we need to improve education around negative behaviour that prompts feelings of being unsafe, and attempt to reduce instances of either assault and harassment on campuses. It’s not always fair to expect victims to take the onus on themselves to be safe. However, education will take time, and campaigns are being rolled out to increase awareness on the effects of substance use, consent and harassment on campuses.

For now, USI has advice for students who feel unsafe on their own campuses at night or in town:

1. Do not walk alone at night. Walk in numbers.

2. When at all possible, stick to busy streets with lots of lighting and traffic. Do not take dodgy shortcuts.

3. Try to avoid talking on your mobile or listening to an Ipod, as either will make you less aware of your surroundings and also advertise that you have something worth stealing.

4. If you think you’re being followed, go to somewhere busy and flag down a taxi.

5. Always make sure someone knows when you’re going out, if and when you’re coming back, and whom you’ll be with. When you’re on your way home, let someone know when to expect you.

6. Only use licensed taxis and hackneys. Take note of the taxi licence number and key it into your phone or text it to a friend. When you arrive at your destination ask the driver to wait until you get inside the door before leaving again.

7. Do not leave keys to your home in an easily accessible or guessable place. Everyone knows to look on top of the door frame, or under the mat, potted plant or just inside the letterbox.

8. Always be aware of who’s around you when you go to an ATM. Do not use ATMs at night on isolated streets – always choose those with good lighting.

9. Don’t be afraid to act assertively if you are uncomfortable or if you think someone is acting inappropriately.

10. When you’re walking: avoid while out walking alone, if possible, heavily overgrown areas, alleys and little traveled side streets and high crime rate areas. Do walk with authority, displaying an air of confidence and purpose of destination. Be alert to your surroundings.

It’s time we ramped up our efforts to educate others about personal safety, and make sure you mind yourself, and your mates. USI continues to work on harassment, assault and consent on third-level campuses around Ireland. Campuses should be havens of wisdom and safety. If students can’t feel safe on their own campus, where can they feel safe at all?