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StudCo realigns following tumultuous semester

After a semester punctuated by reactions to tragedy, StudCo reevaluates student-led safety measures, liability issues

Derailing well-laid tracks

In response to a series of events that shook the University community last semester, Student Council shifted its focus from day-to-day student concerns to focus on promoting and ensuring student safety.

Safety and Wellness Chair Rachel Murphy, a third-year College student, said her committee originally planned to focus on an anti-smoking platform for the fall semester.

“We were really committed to looking at making U.Va. a smoke-free campus just for the health and safety of all of our students, faculty and staff,” she said. “But obviously, things came about and we shifted our focus towards physical safety on-Grounds.”

The Safety and Wellness Committee worked closely with the University’s Security and General Safety Committee throughout the semester.

“We started off looking into smartphone apps and working with the [Committee] on what apps we wanted to look at [and] which ones we’re going to give our students,” Murphy said. “We also talked a lot with the police department about getting the new substation near the Women’s Center.”

Murphy said the app the Security and General Safety Committee is tailoring to the University will become available to students in early February.

This was partially in response to the installation of the fence on Chancellor Street and behind the Corner in October, Murphy said. After the popular shortcut was closed off, many students responded by saying they felt safer crossing the railroad tracks than walking under the bridge near 14th Street.

“In response the University put a light there under the bridge and obviously have a larger police presence to make students who live on 14th and Wertland a lot more comfortable with their walk home and to class in the morning,” Murphy said.

Proposed student-run safety groups

Student Council focused a majority of their student safety efforts last semester on the formation of two student-run safety groups: Buddies on Call and Safety Watch.

First-year College student Jack Capra introduced his idea for Buddies on Call, a group of student volunteers who would walk other students home both on and off-Grounds during the weekend, in September. Capra originally proposed the idea as an independent organization to fill the gap between University services such as UTS and SafeRide.

Council considered Buddies on Call alongside a similar, complementary safety group, Student Watch, in which student volunteers would provide assistance to students on weekends, mainly around the Corner. Debate ranged between ideas of creating an ad-hoc committee to approving the organizations as CIOs with the support of a designated committee on Council. Most options drew on Student Council to provide support in some way.

Second-year College student Abraham Axler, chair of the representative body, said Council initially intended to support Capra and his organization with casual guidance, but eventually realized the organization would benefit from more involved oversight.

Liability Issues

There was some opposition from council members surrounding the organization’s legality and liability, with strong concerns from Axler himself.

“If it’s a CIO, Jack [Capra] is going to go to jail,” Axler said. “Its too much liability for students to assume.”

Batten Representative Alex Gregorio, a fourth-year student, expressed concerns about putting student volunteers in further danger. Gregorio said he was in favor of alternative solutions, including increasing the student fee for SafeRide to expand its resources, or asking the University Police Department send out more patrol cars.

Council ultimately passed two bills to create both Student Watch and Buddies on Call under the Committee on Safety Programs at the end of last semester, but recent efforts to finalize their establishment have proved to be unsuccessful.

Interim Director of Student Activities Emily Miles was involved in discussions throughout the semester for Buddies on Call and Student Watch. She said Council’s plan to negotiate the programs into the University’s special status agreement, which would provide liability coverage under the University, was unlikely to come to fruition.

“By putting [the organizations] in, there’s duplication of what’s happening with the University’s ambassador program,” Miles said, referring to an upcoming safety initiative which will position unarmed, uniformed personnel around Grounds and popular off-Grounds locations on weekend evenings.

Miles also cited further liability concerns, saying that as volunteers, students participating in the programs would not be covered under worker’s compensation should they be harmed while volunteering.

“The general train of thought for Buddies on Call and Student Watch is to go through a CIO process,” she said. “In becoming CIOs, they do take the liability on themselves.”

Uncertain, Unlikely Futures

The future of these organizations as CIOs seems uncertain, due to the ongoing debate surrounding the liability of Student Council and student leaders involved in the two organizations.

Axler said University administration had multiple opportunities in the fall to alert Council of the risks surrounding the safety programs.

“I’m fundamentally frustrated by the lack of cohesive information we were given,” Axler said.

He said the administration never brought up concerns about the amount of training volunteers would be required to have if brought under the special status agreement.

“I believe that a lot of the expeditious nature with which ambassadors was rolled out was due to the advocacy of the students involved in Buddies on Call and Student Watch,” Axler said.

As for the future of the two groups, Axler said he predicts student leaders will create a community dedicated to student safety outside of the home.

“What Student Council did which is really significant, was it facilitated conversations and it explored how students can be involved and how we can keep people safe,” he said. “I am thrilled that students are safer now than they were when we started these conversations.”

Moving onto the next semester

Student Council President Jalen Ross, a fourth-year Engineering student, said Council has rebooted for the new semester while still keeping in mind what the events of last semester mean for the future.

“[We’re] back to addressing smaller concerns that impact students,” Ross said. “[Council can] return to talking about things like academics that we haven’t had the time to talk about before.”

Murphy was also very excited to be moving into this semester with new projects.

“We’re looking forward to a fresh start,” Murphy said. “We’ve got a fire safety initiative we’re doing, working with the Office of the Fire Marshall, just so students who live in off-Grounds housing can have fire extinguishers and know how to use them.”

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