By Michelle Cassell
The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill has expanded its SafeWalk student-run organization to improve ways to help students, postdocs, faculty, or staff members obtain escorted foot transportation late at night.
SafeWalk now provides up to a 30-minute walk to and from a destination. The program also runs during a set timeframe: it offers safe walks between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays. Students can request the service via phone or email. Every person requesting a walker gets two SafeWalk staff to walk with them. They ask people to book reservations through the SafeWalk website whenever possible. The reservations are scheduled in 20-minute intervals.
SafeWalk staff maintain a presence at the UNC Davis Library with the same schedule. Since Davis Library stays open until 2 a.m., it is where SafeWalk gets most of its requests. “We try to be where most of the students are that would need a safe passage back to their residence at night,” said Nick Chappell, SafeWalk program manager and second-year graduate student at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
According to Chappell, the UNC-Chapel Hill SafeWalk program is one of the only campus safety programs in the country that is primarily student-run. This means they have a leadership team of four students that run the daily operations. “In terms of this region, there are very few SafeWalk programs, and especially not student-run.” Chappell said they are very successful in incorporating student ownership of the program and campus safety in general.
Their main office is in the Student Union building on campus. SafeWalk staffs a phone line there and directs walkers to wherever the person is requesting to walk from.
When people request a walk, they call SafeWalk directly, not the police department.
The SafeWalk student employees work in pairs and are identified with matching blue jackets with SafeWalk logos. They also have bicycles and carry radio equipment with the ability to call 911. The student SafeWalk employees are now trained and funded by the UNC Campus Police administration.
This year, the SafeWalk program has taken some steps to brand its image and add new equipment. “I think we’ve done a lot in terms of re-making our image. We’ve got a lot of different equipment. We’ve just recently gotten new bikes, jackets and polos with a new logo. It just kind of legitimizes the image of the program. And then also the portable radios that we’re carrying have been huge in terms of logistics. Having that emergency communication is necessary. That’s not something we always had,” said Chappell.
“An additional layer of security that they’re able to provide is that they now have direct contact with our 911 Center to make sure that they’re maintaining employee safety, as well as customer safety,” said UNC Police Sgt. James David, a staff advisor for SafeWalk.
“The program has been hugely successful in the past four years that I’ve been with it. I think you can see a shift in how the program is viewed and different staff attitudes,” said Sgt. David. The SafeWalk program is funded by the UNC Police Department, a transition that took place from the student affairs budget a few years ago.
There are 11 staff members on SafeWalk, which can hire up to 13. That is enough people to staff two teams five nights a week consistently. The student employees are vetted by background checks and must go through training from the UNC-Chapel Hill Police.
“We get nighttime situational awareness training from the campus police. We also are what the school calls ‘responsible employees.’ We have a reporting obligation where if we hear of any Clery crimes, basically crimes that are associated with Title Nine, we have to report those through different channels. We also report on prohibited misconduct,” explained Chappell.
Since all safe walkers have this reporting obligation and frequently interact significantly with other students, Chappell said, “We like to be able to prepare our people to handle those difficult conversations.”
The SafeWalkers do not carry weapons, mace, or any deterrents other than their radios, which offer instant communication to the UNC police. “The biggest thing we emphasize in the training is how to report any incident or need for assistance through the proper channels. Our walkers are not allowed to intervene directly or put themselves in harm’s way,” Chappell said.
Sgt. David said that SafeWalk is presented to every incoming class at UNC-Chapel Hill. “We also provide literature and resources for graduate and undergraduates during information fairs. We make sure to highlight this program at every given chance.”
Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As managing editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news.