On the morning of Sept. 14, several campus buildings were evacuated and morning classes were cancelled as police responded to a suspicious package in the McCall MacBain Arts Building. Four days later, two men were stabbed just steps away from campus on Sherbrooke Street, and one of them later died. Although Montreal has a lower crime rate than most Canadian cities, security remains a concern for the McGill community. It is a shame that the administration offered little information about the threats, because students should not be kept in the dark about safety. McGill must develop better safety protocols and be more communicative with students about security risks on campus.
The university has some procedures in place to respond to safety issues, but these protocols are limited and vague. The only directive given to those who discover something suspicious is to avoid touching it, call Security Services, and wait for further instructions. Although McGill has an active shooter protocol, they have not publicized a procedure for dangerous individuals armed with other weapons, such as knives. The university’s lack of preparedness for situations like this is especially alarming in the wake of the Sherbrooke Street stabbing. Even though 81 per cent of Montreal’s fatal crimes occur during the evening or night, McGill employs more security guards during the day. This overlooks the many students who remain on campus at night for clubs, events, or studying. Without proper plans to respond to campus threats, students are put in unnecessary danger. McGill should institute evacuation drills for staff and the administration, and should clearly communicate them to students so that if an unexpected crisis arises again, people are prepared to respond appropriately.
Even when the administration does create safety directives, McGill’s notoriously poor communication systems exacerbate dangerous situations. Students whose classes were cancelled or who were evacuated from their lecture halls deserved to understand what was happening, as well as what precautions to take without succumbing to unnecessary fear. Furthermore, the university should have immediately warned students to avoid the area where the stabbing took place, rather than leaving them to find out hours later through social media. McGill may wish to keep certain aspects of their security plans secret to prevent perpetrators from learning about them. However, it is cruel to keep students and staff uninformed and afraid during what they speculated was a bomb threat—and potentially fatal to withhold information about a stabbing next to campus when the suspects remain at large.
The university’s inability to be forthcoming during active threats exemplifies a broader pattern of lax safety throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Although McGill regularly provides updates from the Emergency Operations Centre and attempts to enact contact tracing, communication regarding COVID-19 transmission on campus remains insufficient. As a result, some students in the Faculty of Law began disclosing COVID-19 cases to each other on Facebook, alleging that the university was downplaying the number of cases on campus. The administration eventually blocked them from maintaining their own student-run reporting system. When McGill is not only withholding information, but preventing people from sharing amongst themselves, it erodes students’ trust in the university and calls into question whether the school truly cares about its students’ safety.
If the administration is not willing to prioritize safety, students should use the resources available to them to take precautions. Those who need assistance travelling at night can use the Students’ Society of McGill University’s WALKSAFE service, which relaunched on Oct. 8, as well as DriveSafe, when it resumes operations. Students can also subscribe to the university’s emergency notification system to receive alerts via text message, the McGill app, or their computers. However, the administration must do its part to keep students safe by using the alert software to tell students about safety threats and must adequately prepare for threats before they take place. Attending class or walking home from the library at night should not scare students, but McGill’s poor security communications should.