One night last October, I was hanging out with friends in H-Quad’s Benedict College, a world away from my room in building A of the West Apartments. It was nearing 1 a.m., and I decided to finally take my father’s advice and call the campus ride service so that I wouldn’t be walking back alone. My father had been nagging me about it for over a year.
“You shouldn’t walk alone at night, Ari,” he’d say, over and over. “Call the walk service; that’s what they’re there for. Or call the ride service.”
So I called the ride service.
“Hello. University Police.”
“Hi, can I get a ride back to West from Benedict? I don’t feel comfortable walking by myself so late at night.”
“Oh, no way!” the dispatcher responded.
I was confused. I’d uttered the ever-important words that no campus official is legally allowed to ignore: “I don’t feel comfortable.”
At the officer’s suggestion, I called the walk service and was told by a female dispatcher, who sounded very reluctant to even speak to me, that I would have to wait 20 minutes. About ten minutes after I hung up the phone, I realized the dispatcher hadn’t asked for my phone number or any information at all. I called back.
She said she didn’t think I was planning on waiting for the walkers and asked if I wanted to call back in 20 minutes to see where they were. My friend Will then, reluctantly, walked me back to my room—a 20-minute walk from his.
The next day, I started thinking about what the policeman had said to me. I’d asked for a ride, and he’d responded, “oh, no way!”
Something didn’t seem right.
Stony Brook University brochures and websites advertise two phone numbers to prospective students and their parents—632-WALK and 632-RIDE—but extensive publicity does not mean that the programs are without their flaws. And I am not the only one who’s seen them.
Toni Foster, a senior linguistics major at Stony Brook, often called for rides last summer because she was working in Chapin but living in the West Apartments.
After driving her back to her residence hall on a few occasions, the police would refer her to the walk service, she said, which seemed senseless to her because the walk from Chapin to West takes 35 minutes, and it was dark outside.
According to Foster, the dispatcher would sometimes tell her that the police were not providing rides that night.
“If they really don’t want to do it, they shouldn’t offer the service,” she said.
Her main concern, she said, is the attitude of the campus police department.
“They just don’t care about anything,” Foster said. “They don’t care about the students. They don’t care about their responsibilities.”
She also said that some of her male friends have called the ride service and been denied.
“I have had to call for friends because if they call they won’t get picked up. But if the officer on the other end hears a female, [the student is] more likely to get picked up,” Foster said.
Gender, she said, should not be a factor.
“If you feel unsafe, you feel unsafe; it doesn’t matter if you’re a guy or a girl,” she added.
One night, I asked a male friend of mine to take a walk from West to H-Quad with the service.
Five minutes after he called, two male walkers in their signature neon yellow vests arrived to walk him back. They talked to the student about school and their job, made other small talk and were very polite, the student said. They even complied with no complaint when he asked them to wait outside the Student Union while he went in to buy a drink.
It is unusual that male students use the service, the walkers told the student when he asked.
Two female staff members of the Stony Brook Press used the walk service as part of the investigation, and had no problems. In both cases, the Residential Safety Program workers arrived in under 15 minutes.
A week after my first brush with the services, I decided to do an experiment. I went to Benedict again, and called the ride service around 2 a.m. I was told that they were “not giving rides” that night, so I asked what the policy was, for future reference.
“The ride policy?”
“Yeah, I mean, the ride policy. Like when you can get a ride.”
“I honestly have no idea.”
And there it was—proof that my prior experience hadn’t been a fluke; proof that it hadn’t been an isolated incident of ignorance or neglected duties. There was a problem.
I called the walk service. About 20 minutes after I called, three male walkers in neon yellow vests came to accompany me on the trek back to West.
“We almost weren’t going to come walk you back,” one of them told me. “It’s just so late and we’re so tired.”
Making me feel embarrassed, he also told me that people normally “use the service once and then realize it’s pointless.” Not exactly a comforting thought.
We arrived at my building and the guys said good night and good-bye, and went on their way.
The next week, I received a Facebook friend request from one of the walkers, as well as frequent messages from him in the weeks following. According to the Residential Safety Program manual, a copy of which I acquired from a former RSP employee, walkers are not supposed to fraternize with the 10-26—the expression by which they refer to the student they’re walking.
The walk service falls under the umbrella of RSP. Though University Chief of Police Robert J. Lenahan said in an email that the program has nothing to do with the police department, the university’s website begs to differ.
According to the webpage, RSP is “a professional and student managed organization that promotes safety on campus” and “works with University Police, students, and staff to ensure a safe environment.”
The ride service is run completely by the University Police. As of October 2011, the service provided close to 2,000 rides in the past year.
“The program was originally developed to provide transportation to students who were concerned for their safety,” Lenahan said. “Although the concept has good intentions, throughout the years the program has evolved to a point where many students see the program as simply a free transportation service.”
This, Lenahan explained, takes a toll on the resources of the department, as students attempt to use the service for purposes other than protection. The department reserves the right to refuse the service if it deems it unnecessary. Requesting rides with the intent of going to the store or hanging out with friends is not appropriate, he said. Use of the service because of a medical condition is not allowed either.
“If there was not such a large number of students who were using the service as a perceived form of public transportation, then the program would operate at a much higher level of efficiency,” Lenahan said.
In an email on October 21, Lenahan said that students and parents have filed complaints about the ride service specifically.
“We provide the ride service to over 4,000 students on a yearly basis,” he said. “Although rare, there have been some complaints with regard to the service.”
When complaints are received, Lenahan said, the department investigates the claims to determine whether or not the service provided was sufficient, and to check to see that the reason the student called the service was based on safety concerns.
“The rare complaints that we receive typically deal with issues such as promptness, courtesy and service,” he said.
But copies of the official complaints are “internal documents,” Lenahan told me, which meant I could not see them. I knew he was wrong, and it was confirmed after having consulted my media law professor. The complaints are public information.
I filed a Freedom of Information Law request on October 31. My request was acknowledged with an emailed letter on November 2, and I was asked to further describe the records I was looking for. After speaking to Records Officer Douglas Panico, I did so asking for “any official complaint documents regarding the Residential Safety Program’s walk service and the University Police Safe Ride Service” made within the past three years.
On December 15, I received an email from Panico informing me that there were no records responsive to my query.
Lenahan refused a request to meet in person, and did not respond to an e-mail asking for clarification by publication.
According to the university’s 2011 Annual Security and Fire Report, which was released online, there were seven forcible sex offenses, four aggravated assaults and one simple assault on campus in 2010.
Because Lenahan has yet to respond to the email I sent him on February 19 requesting more current statistics and asking about the records discrepancy, many of my questions are still unanswered.
Sometimes silence speaks louder than words.