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Students walk between buildings on UBC campus in Vancouver, October 29, 2013. (Ben Nelms for The Globe & Mail)
Students walk between buildings on UBC campus in Vancouver, October 29, 2013. (Ben Nelms for The Globe & Mail)

UBC’s campus size, remote location hinder search for sex-attack suspect Add to ...

The University of British Columbia’s president says the vast size and isolation of his main campus are complicating efforts to track down a suspect linked to six sexual assaults since the spring – a series of incidents that have prompted a police response unprecedented in the school’s history.

UBC’s main campus, which has been developed with academic complexes, housing and retail in recent years but is still greatly forested, sprawls over about 400 hectares on a peninsula about 10 kilometres southwest of downtown Vancouver. There are about 50,000 undergraduate and graduate students and 14,000 faculty and staff on the campus regularly.

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“We’re in a very unusual circumstance here – not being an inner-city campus,” Stephen Toope told reporters during a Wednesday news conference called to respond to the RCMP’s disclosure they have linked six assaults since the spring to a male suspect targeting women walking alone at night.

“We have large amounts of open space. This is different from many other campuses where there may have been similar security issues. Very often, this takes place right in downtown cores. We’re obviously in a different position so we have to have a different type of response.”

That response has included more police on campus than ever before in the 105-year history of UBC – a mix of bicycle officers, police using dog teams, patrol officers and members of the RCMP’s emergency response team. Profilers are also working the case to try to put together a psychological portrait of a Caucasian suspect, described as being in his mid- to late 20s or early 30s, now linked to the attacks. On Wednesday, RCMP Sergeant Peter Thiessen said this week’s announcement had prompted about 15 tips police are working through. “Some of them are detailed. Some not so much.”

Mr. Toope said there is a greater police presence on campus now than ever in the school’s history. “I very much hope this will end soon and we will be able to apprehend the person responsible and return to a more normal situation.”

Meanwhile the university has posted security guards at six main residences and is offering a service of school staff to accompany students moving among residences to complement a student-run service that has long provided volunteers to walk students anywhere on campus at night. Counselling is also being offered.

But biology student Jamey Gilchrist said she still feels uneasy. “I feel unsafe in my own community and I think everyone is kind of feeling that way,” said Ms. Gilchrist, who noted she has cut back on jogging and would seek company if going out on campus at night. “The police can’t be in every place,” she said.

Yokai Doya, a geography and politics student, agreed. “There can’t be a policeman at every corner so it’s still upsetting,” she said.

Ms. Doya said one of the attacks occurred within a 30-second walk from her residence. “They have told us to beware, but I feel like that’s not enough,” she said, noting she has ruled out walking through the campus at night alone.

In the most recent assault on Sunday at about 1:30 a.m., a woman was jumped from behind as she left a residence. She “flailed her arms,” according to a police statement and her attacker ran away. The attack mirrors other incidents in which women have been jumped and assaulted.

The assaults have prompted a security review that is to report within a month, and may lead to the wider installation of surveillance cameras on campus, but Mr. Toope said he had some reservations. “I certainly am reluctant to make a commitment at this point that the entire campus would be subject to surveillance,” he said.

Mr. Toope said recent events are at odds with the norm on the campus where he said sexual assaults are rare, though he did not provide specific numbers. “This is one of the safest campuses in North America,” he said. “There is not normally a climate of fear or insecurity on the campus.”

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