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Orientation week at University of Waterloo still about fun but more safety elements added after stabbings

As the University of Waterloo welcomes thousands of new students to campus this week for orientation, the focus will be on fun, but there will also be messages to help everyone feel safe.

Claudia De Fazio, a fourth-year engineering student who has helped plan orientation week events, said the committee knew they had to do something to address the triple stabbing in a gender-studies class on June 28.

“It was definitely on our mind,” De Fazio told Josette Lafleur, guest host of CBC Kitchener-Waterloo’s The Morning Edition.

The engineering faculty has implemented a new role within orientation leaders called EDI officers (equity, diversity and inclusion officers). They’ve had extra training so they can step into uncomfortable conversations or situations” to ensure students feel safe, De Fazio said.

“We are excited to see how this can increase our participation from students who may not have felt welcome in engineering previously.”

Kobisha Rajeswaran is a fourth-year health sciences student who is also helping plan orientation week for her faculty. She was off campus for the summer when she heard about the stabbing.

“Across our campuses, we’ve been thinking about this event and how to make sure that we can make our students feel safe,” she said, noting security has been top of mind for all the groups working on orientation week.

The health orientation committee has added two new equity and sustainability co-ordinators who will be “making sure that we’re having equity as a forefront conversation when we’re talking about orientation and equipping our leaders accordingly to manage any situations.”

As well, health and well-being co-ordinators will be around the events, for students who just feel the need to speak to someone during the week for any issue that’s concerning them or causing them anxiety.

“As a whole, we’re all making sure that we’re thinking about it and we’re planning accordingly for orientation events to help support our students in any way possible,” Rajeswaran said.

Action across country following attack

The day after the stabbings that sent two students and an instructor to hospital, Waterloo Regional Police Service Chief Mark Crowell called it a “senseless act of hate” and a “planned and targeted attack.”

In the weeks after, students told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo they felt uneasy being on campus and questioned how the school handled the situation. Forums were held for faculty and students so university administration could hear their concerns.

People walk past police cars at the University of Waterloo.
People walk past police cars at the University of Waterloo on June 28 after the triple stabbing in a gender studies class. An instructor and two students were taken to hospital. A former student has been charged. (Aastha Shetty/CBC)

The attack had ripple effects at schools across Canada. University student groups have called for better training for on-campus security and said regular safety audits are needed.

Universities in Alberta issued public statements condemning the attack and said they were looking at safety and security on their own campuses.

Philip Landon, chief executive officer of Universities Canada, said he expected more to follow suit, and post-secondary institutions would evaluate both security and inclusivity initiatives.

Former student charged

Geovanny Villalba-Aleman, 24, a recent University of Waterloo graduate, was arrested not long after the stabbings in the classroom in Hagey Hall. He’s been charged with:

  • Attempted murder.
  • Three counts of aggravated assault.
  • Four counts of assault with a weapon.
  • Two counts of possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose.
  • Mischief under $5,000.

The accused remains in custody pending his next court date on Sept. 8.

University reviewing emergency plans

For its part, the University of Waterloo’s administration says it’s working with a third-party consultant to review the school’s emergency response plan.

“This review will benchmark our overall emergency preparedness plans against best practices and help us identify possible improvements,” the school said in a statement on its website on Aug. 14.

An internal review underway into what took place on the day of the attack and the days that followed is also underway.

The school said it’s also working to remove class locations and instructor names from public websites, although that information would still remain available to students through the internal system called Quest. Other universities in Ontario have also removed classroom and other information from their public domains.

Excited to welcome students

As they look ahead to orientation week, though, both De Fazio and Rajeswaran said they want to answer any questions or concerns students have, but also ensure they have fun learning about their new community.

De Fazio said Scav-eng — a large-scale scavenger hunt — is the event she’s most looking forward to because it’s a challenge to find all the items, “but I think it’s a really great way for students to show creativity, too.”

“Orientation for me is really a chance to welcome the students to the school and also create the connections between themselves,” De Fazio said. “But also the broader engineering community, a lot of our student groups get involved in orientation and so it’s a really we use it as a really big way to kind of foster community.”

Rajeswaran said they have a number of secret events, but there will be a chalk throw, where students use coloured powder and toss it at each other.

She said it’s amazing to see “how much colour is going around, students having fun” during that event.

“I just really want to emphasize how excited we are really just to welcome these new students and have them be a part of not only our individual faculties, but also the University of Waterloo as a whole.”

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