York University Sued for $20 Million

And Why it’s Totally Justifited

Education and the safety of its students should be the number one priority of any university.

York University, located in Toronto, Canada, has a long, storied history of bad press in the news. Often sensationalized by certain news outlets in order to grab click-throughs and page views, the fact of the matter is that students no longer feel safe attending York University for a multitude of reasons, ranging from the fear of getting stabbed, robbed, peeped at while in the wash room, or more recently, shot at, to academic reasons such as York’s administration being wholly incapable of just about anything (but that’s another story for another day).

As an alumni of York, I was lucky enough to avoid any potentially bad incidents on campus in my four years there, which makes me feel incredibly silly to even have to write. Whenever I had a class that ended late, usually around 10pm, my father drove all the way from Newmarket to pick me up. I was incredibly lucky in that sense because as a parent, he was afraid for my safety, but not everyone has the same privilege of their father’s driving 40 minutes south, and then 40 minutes north again just so that they know their son is safe.

Before I get into why I think the eight students suing York for $20 million is justified, I feel the need to explain why York tends to get more negative news in the public. What most people do not realize is that while universities like Ryerson and University of Toronto are in the down town core of Toronto, York is not; it’s isolated. This means that whenever an attack happens at any of those universities, they can write it off as something that did not happen on their campuses, but rather, something that happened in down town Toronto. York is not able to do so, so whenever an attack happens, it has to be reported as a York University incident, fairly or not.

York is surrounded by some of the roughest neighbourhoods in Toronto, and no amount of re-branding from Jane & Finch to University Heights, is going to change that. Sure, York is not the problem at hand — it’s the surrounding areas, but the university sure as hell can be part of the solution. Perhaps York should donate some of its money to community outreach programs. I don’t want the school that I am an alumni of to be in a state of constant lock down; that will just create more of a divide between York and the community surrounding it, and worsen the situation.

Recently, in March, there was a shooting in the heart and soul of the university, the Student Centre. This is a place where students can go and eat, study, congregate, sign up for clubs, and just do what students normally do. That changed when two strangers walked onto campus with guns that accidentally discharged, injuring two female students. They, along with six others, are now suing the university for $20 million, and opinions are completely divided. Some of my friends are saying that it’s the most ridiculous thing that they have ever heard of, because “what can the university do to stop this sort of thing?” and, “…literally unbelievable,” while others, like myself, feel as though the lawsuit is completely justified.

Victor Biro Photo via The Toronto Star (4/10/14)

When any one of us tries to adopt this mentality to defend their university, we are in danger of letting the incidents become the norm. Currently, they are far from it, but the way the news reports the incidents, and the way the security reacts to such threats, very soon it could become even more of a problem than it already is. However, if this was simply a one-off incident, then it would be unbelievable. Then you could say that the students are being ridiculous. The thing is though that it’s not. Ever year, there are at least 5-10 reported incidents that take place, which is not taking into account the ones that go unreported. The fact that this is a recurring problem for the university alone is enough to justify the lawsuit.

The students are suing for physical, emotional, and mental trauma caused by the injuries related to the shooting that took place.

“We are alleging, among other allegations, that York failed to maintain their university in a safe manner, and failed to keep these victims safe on their campus,” lawyer Jeremy Diamond said at the conference.” (Source)

This makes complete and total sense. The education and safety of its students should be the number one priority of any university. I think that this case has less to do with the actual money, and more to do with the incompetence of York’s security, and their unwillingness to react to a dangerous situations. This, combined with the fact that students knew, and were tweeting about the situation, well before the 1:07am tweet by York, makes it all that much worse. I understand that York wanted to contain the situation in order to prevent hysteria, but in this day and age, that is nigh impossible. Rather than waiting to inform the students about something that is already well known, why not address the situation first hand before sensationalist news outlets, like CP24, pick it up and run with it? It would not only help the university save face, but would — albeit on a very surface level — make it seem as if the University has stepped up their safety measures.

The biggest and only issue that I have with this lawsuit is that the money, all $20 million, will have to come out of the money students pay as tuition ever year. While I don’t believe the students will receive the $20 million, (more likely a settlement for far less from the university to avoid an embarrassing trial), the fact of the matter is that the students do require some compensation, monetary or otherwise. If someone had died as a result of this, the cost would have been much higher, but even then, can you really put a price on human life?

Many people are comparing this to the Eaton’s Centre shooting that took place in 2012, saying that the victims didn’t sue the Eaton’s Centre security. The inherent problem in comparing the two is that the Eaton’s Center is a mall, with a flow of people that is considerably larger than that of York’s, which more or less remians static throughout the year. While the shooting at the mall was a one-off, there are definitely a number of unreported incidents. That you cannot avoid. However, with a university, it doesn’t matter if it’s one or 100; students simply do not feel safe in a place that they were invited to attend, nor do they have the resources available to them to report it effectively.

Another way to look at this situation is as a homeowner. If you don’t shovel your sidewalk during the winter season, and if someone slips, falls, and breaks their leg, then you are liable for being negligent in regards to public safety. For students up to Grade 12 (I’m not sure about universities), the administration becomes your legal guardian and is responsible for your safety and well-being while you are on school grounds. Universities actively seek out students to come as guests to their respective campuses, so for them not to be taking student safety seriously is negligent.

If I were those students, I would still be suing York for the $20 million, with the stipulation that the money won has to be used to enhance student safety by a certain year through the following means*:

  1. Rather than wasting money on brand new Dodge Chargers, require the security team to have bicycles that can be used to access areas that cars cannot in a quicker fashion. York University is an extremely large campus, and driving all the way around it to get to the other-side, as opposed to be able to cut across directly via bicycle, does not make much sense.
  2. Spend the money installing more, and actually maintaining the blue security phones. The number of times I have walked across campus only to see an out-of-order sign on something students require to feel safe is too damn high. Often times, they are out of the way, not labelled as to where they are, and there simply are not enough of them to service a campus of 55,000+ students properly.
  3. Many of the residence buildings require you to swipe your card to enter, as well as check in at the front desk. Why not implement that all across the campus so that to enter any building you need to swipe your YU Card? Universities like Ryerson and Carlton already have this system in place, so why not York? If other institutions did not have this policy in place I don’t think York could be to blame. However, when other institutions have this policy in place, at no extra cost to students, coupled with years of safety concerns, then there is no reason for York not to take this seriously.
  4. Hire more security guards. Currently, York has 76 to cater to the needs of 55,000+ students (approximately a 1:723 ratio), with plans to add two more in each of the following years. However, simply hiring is not the solution. They need to be properly trained, and that is something that most students feel like the York security team is lacking.
  5. York is a large campus. Have more lights to keep it better lit at night for students with late classes.

If York was in a position where they were forced to enact these measures, and more, by a certain year, I am almost positive that the campus would become immediately safer for students. York is a great university, but it’s not doing anything to help prevent it from getting a shitty reputation.

However, students at York can’t have it both ways. You can’t want York to spend more on security, education, the village, student life, and staffing, yet also want them to cut the tuition rate by 50%. It’s hard not to feel stuck between a rock and a hard place as a York student though. With the tuition rates being some of the highest in the country, I would like to know how the money is being spent seeing as the university is about as average as any other in the rest of Canada. It’s hard to believe that with 55,000 students paying an arm and a leg just to use the services that York provides, that the university doesn't have enough money and funding to increase safety measures. It’s time that York stopped leaking money like a sieve. However expensive education and safety may seem, a $20 million lawsuit is also just as expensive, if not more time-wasting.

Having all attended York, currently or otherwise, we’ve all seen different sides of the university. Mine has mostly been a good one, but having dealt with the administration within my own field of study and at large, my experience has somewhat been tainted. This doesn’t change the fact that while the students want change to occur, and voice their opinion loudly on a regular basis, the administration is wholly lackadaisical

Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit is, I hope that it gets York to be less lackadaisical about things that actually matter, like student safety. While we can’t change the fact that the shooting has happened, what we can do is help prevent further incidents from taking place.

*Note that the list of suggestions is just that — suggestions. They are not perfect, nor will they immediately solve the problematic safety issues currently plaguing York University. These are just some ideas that I had, and hopefully they will have some sort of positive impact.