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Campus Resources

Traditional Campus Safety is Not Violence Prevention

By Lauren Rives, Student Staff Member

In April 2023, I applied for a position as the Director of Student Resources in the University of Utah student government, ASUU. The position is designed to “advance legislation related to campus safety initiatives” and more.

When applying, I said I fit the requirements for the role because of my work at the MCVP. Since January of 2022, I’d been studying violence prevention research and how it manifests with power dynamics, in historically marginalized groups, and on college campuses in particular. I’d written about what I’d come to know when it came to ending violence. I’d even helped create a violence prevention event. I argued my background in this work made me an ideal candidate for implementing initiatives that created a safer campus, as I felt it complemented ASUU’s ideals around keeping campus safe–and lo and behold, here I am, your 2023-2024 Director for Student Resources!

I’ve done a number of things I’m proud of in this role, like our monthly Wellness Series events. In September, we held a sunset meditation for mental health, and in October, we handed out reproductive wellness kits to address the financial inaccessibility of products like condoms and emergency contraception. But I haven’t really worked on anything universities would traditionally consider “campus safety”–except the Lauren McCluskey Race for Campus Safety–because most of the time, campus safety initiatives don’t actually involve violence prevention.

Traditional campus safety initiatives– like increasing lighting, having police escorts at night, and bystander trainings– though incredibly well-intentioned, may actually perpetuate the notion that violence can and will always happen. Instead of focusing on preventing someone from causing harm in the first place, they assume violence is an omnipresent, unconditional threat, so all we can do is have potential victim-survivors attempt to protect themselves from experiencing violence. They arise in response to harm that’s already occurred and tend to target individual acts or types of harm, rather than addressing its root causes. They give us a false sense of safety, where if we just try hard enough to protect ourselves, nothing will happen to us…right?

We can see this on our own campus. Allie and Whitney, two other members of the MCVP, wrote about nightcaps–which ASUU helped support–and how this is an example of a campus safety initiative that isn’t true violence prevention. As the two describe in their blog, nightcaps are special drink covers people put on cups to protect themselves from being drugged and assaulted. While they might deter some individuals from spiking a drink, the use of nightcaps hides the real issue: the fact that a person tried to drug someone else and assault them in the first place. Additionally, ASUU has helped participate in the U’s annual Walk After Dark event, where students walk around campus at night to survey lighting and note which areas are overlit, which ones are too dark, and whether there might be potential travel-related safety issues. This can help contribute to the “stranger danger” rape myth, where if you walk alone in the dark, a stranger might assault you, when research finds that people tend to harm those they know, not strangers.

It is important to note that initiatives like these have value. People today, especially those socialized as women, have been raised to feel like they’re always in danger of being harmed, so nightcaps could bring one peace of mind. Knowing what areas are too dark to see on campus is an accessibility issue. These initiatives can spark conversations about why people cause harm, too.

However, the challenge is that we, as a collective, often treat campus safety initiatives like they are the only strategies for safety, completely misunderstanding what safety means to many people. They contribute to the idea that violence will always exist so all we can do is respond to people causing harm, when true violence prevention recognizes that we can end relationship and sexual violence in our communities and truly be safe from that kind of harm. This type of work has never really been done on a wide-scale basis, though, which is why it’s so hard to imagine true violence prevention as a possibility. But it can be done–through things like education, such as the statistics I included at the Race for Campus Safety about what harm can look like on our campus in who’s most likely to cause harm and be harmed, or the workshops we give here at the MCVP. We can switch our focus to target people causing harm instead of focusing our time and money on having individuals protect themselves from being harmed. We can acknowledge how we can all cause harm and play a role in ending violence, and more. 

It’s through this type of work that I strive to create a safer campus, in both my role here at the MCVP and in ASUU, even if it isn’t what we tend to consider traditional “campus safety.”