Concerns as report suggests Cambridge authorities neglect student safety

22 August 2012

Exclusive: Students have expressed alarm after a high-profile review of Cambridge community safety failed to highlight student safety as a priority for local authorities, despite repeated attacks and sexual assaults on students having occurred over the past few years.

The Cambridge Community Safety Partnership’s (CSP) annual review, released in July, comes after The Cambridge Student (TCS) reported that a University-commissioned video is advising freshers to “ditch the gown and the tux” before heading to clubs in order to avoid attracting aggressive attention from Cambridge residents. In February last year, five students at Downing College were targeted in an attack in The Fez nightclub, allegedly because they were wearing formal suits.

In February this year, Ben Burcombe Filer of Clare College, who suffers from cerebral palsy, was assaulted in broad daylight on Market Street, having been mugged in Senate House Passage in a separate incident the previous term. On both occasions, he was forced to formally complain to Cambridgeshire Police after being left feeling they had failed to take the cases seriously enough.

This report is not the first time that the Cambridge authorities have appeared unconcerned by student safety. A letter from Cambridgeshire Police’s University Liaison Officer PC Simon Railor, which greeted freshers in September 2011, outlined ways that they could protect themselves against theft and cycle accidents, but made no mention of the spate of sexual attacks on females by a serial sex attacker that took place in the city from August 2010. By May 2011, eight out of the nine sex attacks, several of which involved the attacker approaching victims on a bicycle and grabbing them from behind, had involved female Cambridge students. Cambridgeshire Constabulary has confirmed to TCS that although there have been arrests, no-one has been charged and the case is effectively on hold for the time being.

Similarly, no-one has been charged for the two ‘flasher’ attacks on Murray Edwards students that took place this academic year, the most recent in February.

“More needs to be done to address student safety”

Jess Munro, a third-year Politics student at Newnham, said that although she generally feels safe in Cambridge, this was down to fortunate experience rather than any effort on the part of the University or community to reassure students. She added that an unfortunate side effect of having a collegiate system has meant that the university has lacked a “co-ordinated, centralised response to student safety”.

“Student safety shouldn’t be separate from community safety,” she said. “Whilst the University has a responsibility to provide information and security to its students, crime is not solely a university issue and attacks on students are also attacks on members of the Cambridge community.

“There are a huge number of students in Cambridge, and the Cambridge Community Safety Partnership is being incredibly naive in refusing to recognise the unique issues that this presents. Students are equally at risk of being a victim of crime as anyone else in the community. Refusing to acknowledge this propagates the illusion of a distinction between ‘town and gown’ – crime is a community issue and can only be dealt with successfully by working with the community in its entirety.”

Another third-year Newnhamite agreed that although individual colleges are able to provide appropriate safety advice and schemes, a centralised approach is lacking.

“Students are such a large part of the community it seems unfair of the Community Safety Partnership not to recognise this,” she said. “In fact, I would have thought it important for them to work alongside the University concerning safety issues.”

Some Cambridge councillors share students’ concern over the issue. City Councillor Sue Birtles said she found it “worrying” that no provision has been made to include the University and its students in the review. As a representative for Queen Edith’s ward, which includes Homerton College, Cllr Birtles has found that student safety needs to be given more attention.

“After talking to students at the college, including the HUS President, it became clear that more needs to be done to address student safety,” she said. “Better channels of communication need to be established so that students feel their concerns are taken seriously.”

“That situation is constantly watched”

The review states that the priorities for the coming year are reducing alcohol-related violent crime, anti-social behaviour, repeat victims of domestic violence and re-offending.

The Cambridge CSP consists of representatives from twelve Cambridgeshire organisations, including the Cambridge City Council, Cambridge Magistrates and the Cambridgeshire Police Authority. Cambridge University’s Security is not represented in the CSP, and therefore had no input into the creation of the report.

As well as highlighting priorities for the coming year, the review examined issues that have been tackled in the past year, and while there have been concerted efforts to reduce alcohol-related crime, these efforts have mostly been during periods where students are absent from the city centre, such as during the Christmas season.

For instance, a ‘Care Tent’ was used in the city centre on certain nights in December to offer medical assistance to revellers. Taxi marshals were also commissioned to provide security at the St Andrew’s Street taxi rank – however this scheme was mainly in force on ‘hotspot’ nights of the Christmas season, such as Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. One scheme that students did have the opportunity to take advantage of was the ‘Safe Refuge’, inspired by the success of the Care Tent. This was piloted on the weekends of Halloween and Bonfire night and was used to provide rest and water for partygoers.

Despite some councillors’ concern at the absence of student-related issues in the report, other councillors have been quick to defend the work of the CSP and point out that there are other organisations aiming to create a safe environment for students in the city.

City Council Leader Tim Bick said that the CSP review does not represent the totality of work that is in place on community safety, and that regular meetings are held between City Councillors and executives of Cambridge University and Anglia Ruskin students’ unions, during which safety is sometimes discussed. One recent subject of discussion has been plans for improved lighting on Parker’s Piece.

“Priority tends to go to endemic high level trends in crime – currently domestic violence, alcohol-related violent behaviour, anti-social behaviour and re-offending,” said Cllr Bick. “In fact most of these are likely to be as important to students as they are to others in the community.”

“I don’t think it’s quite accurate to measure sensitivity to student safety issues through the Community Safety Partnership priorities,” he added.

“Those student issues are taken very seriously indeed and mercifully the city does not have a level of crime involving students which would justify a much higher level of alert, but that situation is constantly watched and the response would change if it needed to.”

Olivia Lee, News Reporter

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TCS Print Edition: Downing students attacked at Fez (see pages 1 & 6)