Op-ed: On the loss of students’ safety: Are we worth it?

Lizzi Kehoe | Class of 2020

On Monday, students received an e-mail from Executive Vice Chancellor Hank Webber and Uber regarding transportation, safety and the end of Washington University’s “engagement” with Uber. Perhaps you read this e-mail and thought, “Damn, no more ‘frubers,’ that sucks.” Perhaps these free Ubers, “frubers” for the fans, made your route to class a little more comfortable, a little less cold. For me, these frubers have helped with recovering from trauma.

I’m a junior and live off campus in the Skinker-DeBaliviere community. I’m also one of the students who Hank Webber refers to as a victim in his last e-mail; in early September, on a Sunday evening, I was carjacked (still unsure of the verb usage with that) in the driveway in the back of my home. I do not intend to, nor should I have to, explain in detail the trauma I endured from that night, nor the way the feeling of a gun to my head stays with me subconsciously and consciously, still. But, as I’m sure you could guess, if nothing else, it was incredibly scary. After that night, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a network of support, the University included, and for that, I’m incredibly grateful. Quite honestly though, every Sunday that has followed is still hard, especially the Sunday right after, when there was yet another carjacking in my neighborhood. That being said, I vividly remember receiving the e-mail about the partnership with Uber because in that moment, I felt comforted and truly safe, in a way I didn’t think would ever again be possible. I immediately called my parents, my grandparents, all of my loved ones at home who had been worrying about me non-stop to tell them that, thank god, I wouldn’t have to be so concerned about planning my days and evenings around when I could get home safely, and perhaps more importantly, there was less of a chance that another carjacking would happen to yet another student.

Luckily, this was true; to my knowledge, since the program with Uber has begun, there has not been one carjacking incident in the Wash. U. or surrounding community areas (not to students at least).

I want to be frank and state that I believe this is either directly or heavily influenced by this very Uber program, and that ending this program is not only illogical and short-sighted, but inherently dangerous. I want to be frank and point out the sheer number of issues with the other safety measures Hank Webber’s department still seems so confident in.

First, while the newly designed Overpass (or “Forest Park Parkway Pedestrian Bridge”) and art piece are nice to look at, they provide me with absolutely no personal solace or comfort. I do not use the Overpass in my route to and from campus. I’m glad that the Overpass was completed in the timeframe it was intended to be completed in, and perhaps it does provide those who live in the Delmar Loop area with a greater sense of security (Although, does it really?). However, I believe that my sentiment would be shared among the other student residents of Skinker-DeBaliviere: this Overpass is simply not a safety measure for us.

Secondly, it seems like Hank Webber is still unaware of the politics and reality surrounding increased police presence in these areas, which is often highlighted as one of his department’s main responses to the incidents of earlier this school year. Several articles have been shared that express concerns which I as a white woman cannot directly speak to, but I have had conversations with people of color on this campus who have stated that this increased presence directly threatens their sense of safety. I’m urging this department to consider the ways in which this police presence measure only appeases white, wealthy families, whose sense of safety cannot be equated with those in communities of color. Perhaps this will be taken more seriously by the department coming from someone who has experienced a traumatic incident, but who still understands the ways in which safety means different things for different people and identities. Communities of color, specifically black communities, both within Wash. U. and in surrounding neighborhoods, have felt unsafe due to police presence before these carjackings happened, and current measures naively disregard and minimize histories of police violence perpetuated against communities of color across the country and in St. Louis especially.

Third, as it stands, the “range of options” provided to students for transit has major issues. These options, as referenced by Mr. Webber and other departments, are the Metro lines and the Campus2Home shuttle. The Metro Green line, as I’ve heard from a number of students, is inconsistent, often crowded during peak hours and can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to get you home. I’ve heard similar sentiments about the Campus2Home shuttle service. This duration is of particular concern to me, and I’d presume many other students, as well. I’m asking Mr. Webber to consider the difference in getting home at 12 a.m. versus 1 a.m. For me, it’s a big difference: not only am I going to be more anxious walking up to my door at 1a.m., but I’m also going to be sacrificing another hour of sleep. I can assure you that for Wash. U. students, sleep is integral and, unfortunately, hard to come by given the culture of success and pressure on this campus. Personally, sleep is crucial to my mental and physical health, ability to perform, and overall well-being.

Lastly, most of this department’s measures put safety on the responsibility of students. As one student expressed to me, precautions like Noonlight and safety escorts (who can only escort you to places on campus?) inherently put the burden of safety on the students. Safety should not be something students have to “opt-in” to, but these measures suggest that they are nonetheless responsible for doing so. We even have to opt-in for alerts on crime; last year, when a student was mugged near Kingsbury Avenue, people were still using the supposedly safe Overpass because they didn’t know. I understand that safety cannot be guaranteed by the University, or by Mr. Webber, but I can tell you that at least for me, my sense of safety was greatly improved with the Uber program. Unlike Noonlight, the Uber app is one that doesn’t make me hold down a button when I’m scared; instead, it gets me home.

Wash. U.’s engagement with Uber enabled me to comfortably walk to campus in the morning, knowing that I’d be able to safely get home, and even go back to campus, at my leisure, instead of having to plan my entire day around how I would get home before the sun sets at, well, now, 4:45 p.m. Most of my classes next semester don’t end until 5:30 p.m., so I’m looking forward to navigating that. I also volunteer for a student group that requires me to be on campus until 1 a.m. at times, and this program has provided me with a sense of safety that enables me to continue volunteering and providing that service. This program has literally made recovering from a traumatic experience so much easier for me. Yes, it’s helped, but no, it has not solved everything—I still have to call my roommate to meet me outside sometimes; I still speed walk to my front door with my (gifted) pepper spray in tow; I still have to navigate intrusive questions from Uber drivers about the safety of my neighborhood and home. Yet, all of these things are things I can manage with the free Uber program as a resource I can rely on.

Now, when I should be studying for finals, or spending time with friends who are leaving for winter break, or honestly sleeping, I’m writing this. I’m writing this and spending unnecessary time and energy worrying about how my spring semester will look, with not only my own fear, but fear of other students being at risk because this program is ending. Mr. Webber, I never could have imagined that a carjacking would shape the start and entirety of the fall semester of my junior year, but I can imagine that, if this program is extended, this semester would end on a slightly better note, with the assurance that when I get back to campus in January, I’ll know how I’m getting home.

Moving forward, I’ve looked at past emails and articles regarding the Uber program; they’ve referred to this program as a “direct response” to a rise in crimes near campus, and they’ve also stated that after this program, “usage, key operations considerations and feedback” will be evaluated. Well, consider this one piece of feedback, but these statements also inspire me to leave Hank Webber and associated departments with a few questions: Where is this evaluation of usage? Where is the research showing whether or not this program has led to a decrease in crime? Where is the transparency? How much will it cost to sustain the extension of this program? How much of Wash. U.’s endowment, of which without question goes to fossil fuel companies, STEM research and tulip maintenance, will go towards not just one, but many students’ sense of safety? Are we worth it? Should students be making a choice between paying for an Uber, or their own safety? Are we really Hank Webber’s highest priority?

I sent a version of this piece to Hank Webber and his colleagues. I’m still waiting on a response, but I hope the sentiments I’ve expressed help them answer at least a couple of those questions. I’m not publishing this with the intent of evoking pity, sadness or even fear on behalf of anyone who reads this—I’m publishing this with the hope that maybe it’ll inspire Hank Webber to respond with concrete steps forward, or if anything, inspire a conversation about safety that’s nuanced, intentional and rooted in empathy and experience. For now, “stay safe,” everyone.