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YUSU NightSafe: Peer support for vulnerable students on a night out

The University of York's NightSafe scheme began just over three years ago in response to the death of York student Megan Roberts who tragically drowned in the River Foss after a night of drinking with friends. Later that year, a report revealed that 24 people had died in York's waterways over the previous 15 years - often through suicide or alcohol-related accidents - and in 2013/14 alone, there were 35 close calls. NightSafe started out with a handful of student volunteers, covering a weekly University club night; this has grown to a group of over 40 volunteers, plus team leaders with increased experience and training, who donate their time on four nights of the week. We spoke to project coordinator Lee Turner, a third year University of York student, to find out more.

The scheme is funded by North Yorkshire Police, and topped up by fundraising events. Costs include the volunteers' distinctive orange jackets that display the Nightsafe logo, training, water bottles, blankets, flip flops and sick bags, as well as CCTV and radio equipment.

Volunteers are connected to North Yorkshire Police and door staff in York's bars and clubs via radio; volunteers can be directed to assist vulnerable students and members of the public, both in the streets and near the river, through the city's CCTV system. In addition to first aid, students receive comprehensive training through the Police, including self-defence (a precautionary measure for students' protection) and conflict management. An ex-homeless person has delivered a talk to the team on how best to approach and assist the homeless in York; the University's Open Door service helped educate volunteers on how to speak to suicidal persons; and Lifeline UK advised volunteers on how to identify what type of substance an individual may have consumed and the best course of action in each instance. Volunteers have also worked alongside Jackie Roberts (mother of Megan) through her Don't Drink and Drown campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of the River and the effects of alcohol consumption.

NightSafe volunteers are primarily involved in preventative work, which has had the knock-on effect of significantly reducing the burden on emergency services. In keeping with reports across the UK, Lee Turner has observed an increase in students struggling with mental health issues. He explains how many encounters with distressed individuals are diffused through talking and signposting to support services. At the end of each shift, volunteers write up an incident report; this is passed on to the University who can decide what action, if any, to take next.

When volunteers assist those under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they can liaise with the University night bus or their preferred taxi firm to ensure students get home safely. The University of York has an agreement in place whereby students who have lost their money can travel home by taxi with their University Student Card; they visit the taxi office on the next day to retrieve their card and settle the fee. If volunteers are particularly concerned about a student, they can contact University Security who will agree to meet that student from their bus or taxi and escort them home. Lee explains how peer-to-peer support is so effective in many of these situations: "students feel more comfortable approaching students; if they have taken drugs or consumed a lot of alcohol, they are more likely to be honest with us and we are better able to help them. It also sends a nice message of students looking after students."

The scheme is currently promoted to students through social media and an extensive poster campaign in all academic buildings, communal areas in student accommodation and after Easter, posters will also appear on York's buses. NightSafe also run a stall during Freshers' Week to inform students of their services and recruit volunteers, and are hoping to develop a talk on staying safe on a night out, to sit alongside safety and wellbeing talks at the start of the academic year.

Such is the success of the scheme that two other universities are currently working with YUSU's NightSafe team to develop similar schemes in their cities, drawing upon NightSafe's experiences of what works and shadowing volunteers as they patrol the streets. The team welcome requests for assistance from any university wishing to go down this route, and they can be contacted here.

In just under two weeks, NightSafe will be hosting their annual award ceremony for volunteers, highlighting and rewarding their hard work. If you are a University of York student interested in becoming a Nightsafe volunteer, the window for applications is open until midnight on April 10th, and you can apply here.

The YUSU NightSafe scheme is cited as good practice in the ProtectED Code of Practice, in Indicator 4.1 of the Student Night Out Instrument; if a university is to achieve ProtectED accreditation, it must have a Street Marshall scheme in place where risks to students on a night out have been identified.

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