Campus safety is a major concern at U of T. The university has a number of programs in place to deter crime, including the “Work Alone” service, the “Green Dot” program, and the Community Safety Office. A particular source of anxiety is the increased risk of assault after dark, a concern that has been met by the establishment of the “WalkSmart” program.
“The service started around 1992,” says Sam D’Angelo, the coordinator of WalkSmart. “Back then, there were a few occurrences at other campuses. It was thought that the only thing we were lacking here was a walk home service, which was very popular at Western and other places. So the university decided to adopt it and it’s been in effect ever since.”
Walk home programs were first developed in the United States. Western was the first Canadian university to institute such a program, during a period of increased crime rates. U of T initially had few night classes, meaning a lower demand for a similar initiative. But evening classes became more common, and with increased activity on campus at night, the program was installed.
Anyone can WalkSmart, including visitors to campus who are not enrolled at the university. The only criteria is that you must be moving between campus buildings or to a nearby subway station.
“The objective of WalkSmart is safety in numbers,” D’Angelo explains. “We get the employees to pick up a student from an academic building, and drop them off at another academic building or a nearby subway station. It’s not designed to be a downtown campus walk home service.
“I don’t want my employees to drop people off at a bar; I don’t want them going to Bathurst and Bloor, because it’s not designed for that. We are strictly a campus service. If the university owns and operates a building, we will escort a student to and from there.”
When you call WalkSmart, the dispatch sends out one male and one female escort to meet you for the time you request. WalkSmart employees have jackets and ID cards so they are easily identifiable to callers, due to incidents in the past where impersonators have compromised the safety of people who call in. “We’ve learned that if we leave an opening, deviants might take over,” D’Angelo reflects.
Most program employees are students. “Our objective is to hire students. We’ve had challenges in the past where students couldn’t work, around exam time for example,” D’Angelo recalls. “WalkSmart is designed so that two people respond to an escort. If one WalkSmart books off, that team is now gone. So, at exam periods and on Friday nights, it is challenging to get students to fulfill the role. We have hired students as WalkSmarts that have graduated and come back [for] a part-time job.”
In order to accommodate the schedules of students employed by the program, after midnight U of T Campus Police building patrols take over the service. “The WalkSmart people aren’t on duty but my building patrols then do their part. They’re students, so you have to appreciate that. At one time, we had them working at two in the morning and it was challenging because a lot of them have class in the morning.
“So what I’ve done is that from midnight to six am, you have campus police dispatched to pick up clients and take them from point A to point B in the absence of WalkSmart.”
D’Angelo looks for more than just enrollment at U of T when evaluating prospective employees. “We test to see why you want to be a WalkSmart person. We want to make sure that you’re here for the right reasons — so why you want this job, what are your objectives. And more importantly, we check out their background, to make sure that they’re not a safety risk to the community.
We ask for police record checks on people because they are escorting people that could be vulnerable. We make sure their intentions are honourable. We do all the necessary due-diligence tests.”
Students going into police work do not have a particular advantage in the hiring process. In fact, D’Angelo notes, the opposite is often true. “The majority of [WalkSmart employees] are doing it for sense of community. Some become social workers.
“Those that want to do police work tend not to be good candidates because they get the wrong perception of what it is. They’re not security. They’re simply there as a comfort zone for safety in numbers for that individual.”
More than counseling, WalkSmart escorts frequently serve as a source of information about campus to students who use the service. The program tends to be used most by first-year students in their first six months on campus before they develop friendships, and they often seek basic information from the employees during the walk, such as locations of different buildings, or names of good restaurants in the area.
Usage takes a dip around this time of year, as more students have friends to walk with when it gets dark out. “It stays fairly regular,” Sam notes, “If there’s an occurrence on campus that’s been in the media a lot, we find there’s a spike in usage.”
D’Angelo believes that the presence of the WalkSmart program successfully deters nighttime crimes. “At nighttime around here, it’s actually very safe. You have a better chance of getting your laptop stolen at Robart’s than of getting attacked. Outside of the soft boundaries of the campus, I can’t speak to, but if you look inside the campus, crimes against persons [are] very low.”
Employees of the program declined to provide testimonies for this article.