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An emergency call box at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Everyone has a different take on campus safety.

It's more than running down a checklist of a university's safety features: a well-lit campus, a safe walk program, various preventative and supportive services. Such measures are a given these days.

And it's more than debates on larger cultural issues of freedom and respect and battling intimidation, whether in dorm rooms or in the classroom, online or offline.

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It's more immediate and personal than that, and it is formed by something not always obvious. It's about how a university frames the discussion on safety and whether there is enough of a sense of inclusion surrounding that discussion.

In other words, it's how a university talks about security and how it sets the tone. This can have a direct effect on how safety policies are implemented, and it's something students and parents should listen for when considering a school's security.

For instance, at McMaster University in Hamilton, like at many universities, a major emphasis is put on establishing a sense of community. Students (and parents) are informed about the available safety and help services before arriving on campus each fall, and then orientation week offers further opportunities to acclimate students to campus life and to personal safety concerns, from alcohol and mental health to sexual issues.

"This may sound somewhat clichéd, but if you're trying to build a community where students don't feel isolated or marginalized, if they feel they can go to people and talk to them, or if they've got connections with people, then they are going to be safer generally speaking," said Sean Van Koughnett, associate vice-president of students and learning and dean of students at McMaster.

This communal sensibility has an effect on how student-led activities are run during the academic year.

There are hundreds of student-run events on and off campus, Mr. Van Koughnett said, and some involve travel or alcohol, as well as people coming in from outside the university.

"So we go through a pretty rigorous process to train student leaders on how to manage risks within the events they run," he said. The school's student-event risk management policy requires that clubs meet a number of safety criteria. If there's alcohol, for example, the event area has to be licensed and nobody under 19 can be served.

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"If you're a McMaster sanctioned organization or club, and you want to run any event, we're looking at that closely, without trying to be overly aggressive about it," Mr. Van Koughnett added.

Which university is right for you?

At the University of Toronto, with its hugely diverse student body living on and off campus, the school uses a number of methods to communicate safety to students. In larger classes, the university runs Just in Time slides, which are like the slide shows in cinemas before a movie, giving various updates about university events and safety. Slides are also shown at the Second Cup in the student services building, taking advantage of a captive audience of students buying coffee.

"So when they're waiting in line, they're watching some fun slides around this messaging. We are constantly reinforcing the messages in different ways," said Lucy Fromowitz, assistant vice-president of student life at the University of Toronto.

The school also hires student bloggers to cover safety and other campus issues. So, a blogger may be assigned to attend a self-defence class offered by the school and write about it. The blogs have a high readership, with around 26,000 followers.

"Each generation responds differently. Whereas, for example, it was just brochures in the past, this is a generation that isn't going to sit down and read a brochure," Ms. Fromowitz said.

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The tone a university sets is also critical when something goes wrong. After a string of six sexual assaults in the spring and fall of 2013, the University of British Columbia instituted a number of safety measures, from raising the brightness of its campus lighting to trimming hedges and expanding its Safewalk program.

It also brought about a change in student habits, with more using a buddy system while getting around, as part of UBC's Stay Safe, Don't Walk Alone campaign. There was tough criticism at the time by some in the community, believing the university was instilling fear, particularly in women.

Nevertheless, "We thought that that was an important message to relay at that particular moment. And what we did see happen as a result of that, as relayed by our campus security patrols and also our student Safewalk program, was that there was a huge shift in behaviour around that time" toward more use of the buddy system, said Louise Cowin, UBC's vice-president of students.

"We also recognized that there was great power that came from the importance of this messaging of looking out for each other, and we have been very thoughtful and mindful of how we can continue to relay the importance of those messages," she said.

Meanwhile, online safety issues have made the traditional boundaries of campus security all the more broad and more difficult to patrol.

Brenda Whiteside, the University of Guelph's associate vice-president of student affairs, sees this requiring a whole other set of safety basics and new approaches.

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At Guelph, a huge portion of the student population lives on campus, so there are lots of simple tips to learn, not just online, but in the everyday real world: Don't prop open the door of the dorm, don't let someone into residence you don't know, don't leave the door to your room open. Communicating these tips is very much tied to the student residence system.

"Within the residential environment, there are all sorts of different challenges: the over-consumption of alcohol, not going to classes, mental health issues, conflict, etc. One of the advantages of a residence is that you just have the extra eyes and ears of the residence staff. There's more intentional watching to make sure that someone's okay," Ms. Whiteside said.

And that's the responsibility of the students, not just staff. "At orientation, we talk a lot about bystander programs. If you see something wrong, let us know."

The trick is to carry that sense of a caring community into the online world. "Our position has always been that if there's any risk to themselves or others, and they are students, then we'll intervene," Ms. Whiteside said.

More stories from the Canadian University Report

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