Thursday, April 18, 2024

UP offers students safe late-night walks home

By Aleksandra Sidorova

University Police’s Safe Walk service fully launched this semester, allowing students to request to get escorted by their peers, who are safety ambassadors and work in pairs Thursday through Saturday, 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Students are always able to call UP and request to be escorted from one point on campus to another, but the Safe Walk service gives students the option of walking with their peers instead of an officer. The service can be accessed by scanning a QR code on Safe Walk posters or on the SUNY Plattsburgh website. 

According to UP Inv. Jessica Facteau, who manages the program, Safe Walk was designed based on a survey conducted by Associate Professor of Teacher Education Michelle Bonati, which found that students would be more receptive to being escorted from one place to another by their peers than police officers and they would be more likely to utilize the service weekend nights.

Five students are currently Safe Walk ambassadors, sporting reflective bright-red jackets when they’re on the job. Four of them are paid — Dineshreddy and Shantan Channapareddy, Haleyann Ortiz and Kenneth Baez — and one, Paula Cucaita, receives academic credit for her work as a UP intern.

Facteau hopes the number can go up to seven or eight students, as it was in 2018, but in order to receive more funding from the Student Association, there has to be a formal record of the service being utilized. So far there is none, though Facteau said student ambassadors would perform 10 to 15 escorts a semester in previous years.

Facteau recognized students may be sharing their locations with friends through their smartphones as a safety measure, but still wants more students to know about the service should they need it.

Students have had the opportunity to work with UP as safety ambassadors since 2018, originating from former UP Officer Coty Cowles’ experience being part of a student patrol program at SUNY Brockport. Facteau disagreed with the idea of students acting as their peers’ patrol officers and enforcing student conduct, instead focusing on improving campus safety “so it didn’t feel police-y.”

As such, if students in a compromising situation — intoxicated or otherwise violating student conduct — request a student safety ambassador through Safe Walk, they will not face consequences as it is not the safety ambassadors’ responsibility to enforce law or student conduct.

“We’re all about safety, right? This is college — we understand that students may be drinking, but this is not an opportunity to enforce those particular sets of laws,” Facteau said. “More likely than not, I would imagine, Friday, Saturday night in the late hours of the morning, someone may be coming back from a party and maybe got separated from their friends. I think that’s why it was believed that if it was students providing these escorts, more people would utilize them — because the police wouldn’t be the ones responding.”

Dineshreddy Channapareddy heard about the job through his brother Shantan, an SA senator for student affairs and diversity, and it appealed to him because it did not conflict with his class schedule. As a first-year or sophomore, he would have regretted being busy on weekend nights, but as a senior, he likes his working hours because they give him “an excuse not to go out.”

A typical Safe Walk shift starts out with walking through every floor of the residential halls and campus buildings, such as Angell College Center. In the fall, ambassadors would walk to Hawkins pond as well. Ambassadors also have the opportunity to ride along with UP officers during their patrols.

Channapareddy majors in economics and finance, unlike some of his criminal justice coworkers, but the job still taught him a valuable lesson in commitment and responsibility.

“We can’t shy away from things that we could before. Honestly speaking, if I was a freshman or a sophomore and I found someone being drunk or acting out on the streets, I would walk away — that’s what most people would do,” Channapareddy said. “But you learn that once you have this windbreaker on you that says ‘Safety Ambassador,’ you’re pretty much responsible for everything that goes on campus.”

A highlight of Channapareddy’s time as a safety ambassador is the opportunity to participate in a Christmas parade, where he gave out candy to Plattsburgh residents while Burghy and the Grinch cruised through the city on a float.

Facteau said working with students is her favorite part of her job. 

“I’ve always said that I learn just as much from the students as they learn from me, if not more, honestly,” Facteau said. “Engaging with students is definitely a highlight of my job here”

The first student hired as a safety ambassador, ‘20 alumnus Humberto “Tico” Alvarado, who now works as a college counselor for the nonprofit Harlem Children’s Zone, visited SUNY Plattsburgh in early March. Alvarado said the visit was emotional for him, as he didn’t have a chance to say a “proper goodbye” to Facteau; he went on spring break and “never got to return” due to  COVID-19.

The safety ambassadors program was presented to Alvarado as a bridge between UP and students of color, and the opportunity signaled to him UP’s willingness to better understand students of color. Alvarado said being part of the program “opened my eyes” and changed how he views law enforcement as well as other groups of people.

“Around 2016, that’s when Trump got elected, and around that time there was a lot of turmoil in the country, specifically for students of color,” Alvarado said. “Working with UP showed me not all [police officers] are the same. It’s a life lesson as well, because it applies to everything.”

Channapareddy does not have such an impression of the program, but does agree that new students can have a stigma against UP. 

“It’s never good news if police come knocking, right?” Channapareddy said. “So I think that’s where the stigma comes across, but they’re very nice people once you get to know them.”

When Channapareddy first came to Plattsburgh as an international student from India, UP was a new phenomenon, but after working with them, he said he thinks of them as “very chill and very easy to get along with.”

Alvarado also said he noticed his friends felt safer knowing he was a safety ambassador — “knowing that, OK, they don’t hate us, right?”

“I think it provides a sense of security and safety, even though safety ambassadors can’t really do much,” Alvarado said. “But the fact that they are an extra set of eyes on campus that can alert UP if they see something, or just kind of be a mediator for certain things, I think that also provides a lot of support for students and the faculty and staff.”

In Channapareddy’s experience, students were curious about his position and asked how they could get involved.

“It’s a very good program,” Channapreddy said. “I don’t know why it was under the radar for such a long time.”

As some safety ambassadors, including Channapareddy, will be graduating this semester, UP will be looking for candidates for the fall semester. Interested students in good academic standing will be able to apply on Handshake, an application that connects students with job opportunities, or they can email Facteau at jfact001@plattsburgh.edu.

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