Concrete revisit security

‘I think the misconception about security and how they work as far as the student is concerned is that we’re the baddies.’

Two years ago, Concrete shadowed UEA’s Security team for a night around campus to learn what they get up to. This freshers’ week, our Editor-in-Chief, Sophie Bunce, and Deputy Editor, Matt Nixon, revisited UEA Security, spending the night finding out more about the work that they do. In a matter of hours, we saw how mental health and the rise of drugs on campus have altered the team’s role since we had last met.

In Security’s control room, Bunce kept watch of campus with over 300 CCTV cameras, and interviewed those on control. Meanwhile, Nixon followed UEA’s Security Duty Manager, Lisa l’Anson, as she toured campus to keep the new student cohort safe.

When we last spoke with Lisa in 2016, she had told Concrete that by 11:30pm, she could tell what sort of a night it would be. Tonight, however, she’s not so sure: ‘It’s very difficult because normally you can get a feel of what they’re like when they’re coming down this road.

‘I don’t think trouble because they all seem very happy. But you never know. You never know, we’ll wait and see.’

There were 2,500 students in the LCR, dozens of flat parties, and yet only five members of Security on tonight. A lower than average number, Lisa tells us, but not likely to impact the team’s work. Despite this, we were excited for what the night could hold with new students enjoying freshers’ week, and Lisa feels the same.

‘We absolutely love [freshers’ week],’ she said. ‘It’s great to see them letting their hair down, but it’s the period we have to set boundaries.’ With students smoking in kitchens, climbing out of windows, and seeing how much rope they can have, Lisa said, ‘for us it’s about stopping them there and then.’

Lisa has worked as a member of UEA’s Security team for over twelve years, a standard week for her is two days, two nights then four days off; though during the Beast from the East last year she worked nearly 24 hour days due to other staff being unable to make it into work. If this doesn’t show her commitment, then her 2014 award of ‘Security Officer of The Year’ in the Annual Women in Security Award certainly should.

It seemed every Security Officer we spoke to that night shared Lisa’s commitment. She told us: ‘We are a very tight team, we look out for each other when one person is down. We pull together and hold them up. We bolster each other, we stand side by side… we’re always looking out for each other and that’s what makes a difference.’

Not only does the team’s commitment to protecting students unite them, but their approaches to dealing with even the most difficult incidents on campus are as impressively consistent.

By 11:30pm, only one report had come into the Security control room: a student had been sick in Britten House. Nobody said security work was glamorous. Just imagining having to deal with this is repulsing, but to UEA Security its a standard incident that highlights how pastoral care is an increasingly vital part of their role.

In 2016, Lisa told Concrete how she had seen it all on campus. But we did find out about one specific incident since then that had particularly shocked her.

‘We’ve had one quite serious incident in the broad, when there was a lady who was unresponsive for 20 minutes, which just highlights the dangers of people going into the broad. She walked into the broad and within two or three minutes, she was unresponsive and face down.

‘We had to watch on for about 20 minutes before she was dragged out by paramedics and firemen, which was really, really scary.’

From disturbing situations, to the disgusting and mundane, UEA Security work hard to treat every situation with caution and care. Over the course of our evening, it wasn’t uncommon for Security staff to explain that this commitment was because students feel like family to them.

One Security Officer said: ‘We are like a replacement mum and dad for them. The welfare of the students is paramount. At the end of the day, if there aren’t any students we don’t have a job. I always say to students we are your replacement parents…  if you’re parents get pissed with you then they’re going to say no. We’re exactly the same.’

As the shift was relatively quiet before midnight we took the opportunity to discuss an issue Concrete has covered in great depth: mental health on campus. In the last year, we’ve reported on counselling wait times dropping to zero, yet Security have seen the number of incidents related to mental health continue to rise. Alongside an increasing drug use on campus – especially Cannabis, Nitrous Oxide (Nos)  and Xanax – attention to mental health has drastically changed the way the team operates.

‘We used to have more fights years ago […] and even fire alarms,’ says Stefan, Lisa’s number two on shift. ‘I remember one night we had 12 fire brigade calls.’

He said dealing with fights and incidents like this is easier because they are more direct, ‘but with mental health it’s more complicated; you need to be careful what you say because it can trigger something.’

Unfortunately, Stefan says he feels that staff aren’t trained enough to deal with issues related to mental health. ‘To train everybody on mental health issues would take weeks, it’s so complicated. [But] we have more mental health awareness, its changed. It’s like everything in life, it evolves.’

UEA Security do, however, have protocols in place with Student Services, the Campus Warden, and even Nightline for helping students with mental health issues. Alongside that, they pride themselves on always being there just for a talk and a cup of tea: ‘That’s what a lot of it is – you have to have empathy.’

It’s hard to know how strong the link between more students using drugs and more students experiencing mental health issues is. But Security have first-hand experience, and believe there is a link: ‘Xanax only really came about last year. We noticed an instant change in students and their behaviour. They were chaotic, things were getting trashed.’

Lisa mentioned one student who trashed their flat, and was encouraging other students to take the drug. Were it not for the fact that this student had already registered their substance problem with the university and was receiving help, consequences could have been severe.

At one point on our night with Security, we stumbled upon a group of students smoking Cannabis. They lied about it, but Lisa said she wouldn’t put backs up against the wall as they weren’t causing trouble, stayed polite to Security, and left when asked to. Commenting on the rise in Nos usage, Lisa said it’s ‘not as harmful as some of the other substances, but it happens. It’s not something we want to continue though.’

For Lisa, a lot of her decision-making when policing students comes down to whether or not students are being polite, honest and respectful. It seems that those who aren’t are the ones more likely to be punished.

When it comes specifically to drugs, catching dealers and halting the supply onto campus is Security’s main concern. We spoke to Neil about an external K9 unit brought into assist campus security with his two dogs: Asbo and Luther (Luther pictured).

According to Neil, deterrence is key. ‘When dealers turn up on site, they do stick out like a sore thumb. As soon as we pull up alongside them, they soon disappear.’

‘[People] driving around at night who aren’t supposed to be here see the van and disappear. It’s that simple.’

In fact, Neil said that he’s only had to open his doors to get the dogs out once, when somebody refused to leave campus. Mostly, incidences that Security have to deal with are either seen while staff are on patrol, or on the campus CCTV network.

The first major incident of the night was caught on one of the many cameras: a window was broken and three men had fled Britten House. At the control room, the team followed the perpetrators across campus, phoning colleagues outside, using cameras to identify the group who, after leaving the scene, had circled campus and done the unthinkable: returned to the scene of the crime.

When a criminal issue arises, the Security team pass it onto disciplinary officers who take it further. Once out of their hands the team are onto the next call – which was a call to the 24/7 window company to fix the glass. To our surprise, a repair van arrived almost immediately. It turns out that this sort of damage is so common that during freshers’ week and other peak times, UEA keep one on site permanently.

‘It’s only circumstantial, really,’ says Lisa about the broken window, but tells me it will cost at least £600 to replace. We asked Lisa if the university might press criminal charges. ‘No, we tend not to proceed with criminal charges for students. We tend to deal with them in house, unless of course it’s something very serious.’

By the end of our night with Security, the three suspects were not caught, though the team continued to investigate. It’s clear that UEA Security want the best for their students, and that definitely doesn’t begin with a criminal record. This same idea, Lisa tells us, is why Security are soft on dealing with students caught attempting the five Ls, which the team can only laugh at.

‘Yeah, it happens. Library security are always calling us because there are people at it in the toilets. We have CCTV in the laundrettes – which is also an L – and there was a guy and a girl at it in one of them. We could see them on CCTV and we were like, someone go over and give them a knock.

‘We said “Guys, there’s a camera there above you,” and they’re like “Oh my god!” It goes no further than that, just be careful because we are watching.’

To be clear, any incident involving a student that is in breach of the University’s Disciplinary Regulations will be referred to the Disciplinary Officer. If their actions are also a criminal act, then the Police will be involved (as well as Disciplinary Officer).

Later that night, an ambulance arrived on campus for a student. Security told us that their procedure is to not interfere with paramedics, often meaning they don’t know why emergency services have been called to campus. Security understand this is necessary to maintain patient privacy. However, when access to a building has to be arranged, Lisa said that ‘this of course causes delays. If they would let us know when they’re en route, then we could meet them on location.’

As the LCR empties, we watched the cameras play out a scene we’ve been part of before. Friends are reunited, LCR lovers see each other outside for the first time, and after vomiting on the curb, a student picks up their VK and begins to walk home.

Viewing these events from the Security control room provides a whole new perspective on the scene. The cameras survey the area as students evaporate into the night, and while we consider our work done, the team are far from giving themselves a pat on the back. They vigilantly watch the students and wait for the inevitable. The phone will ring again. Security will answer.

Lisa was unperturbed by this awareness, and seemed to sum up the mood of the whole team when we asked her what her favourite part of the job is

‘Ultimately, they’re our students and we love them as much as we love UEA. My favourite part? I think graduation week. You get to see the faces you’ve seen for three years and there’s a real sense of pride. Everyone looks so lovely, and you can remember freshers when they arrived crying or leaving their mum.

‘A couple of weeks later you see them behind a bush and they’re with a boy and it’s just evolving. You see the progress and then you see them graduating and it’s great. It’s just the complete story.’

Lisa continued: ‘We’ve just gotten over a very, very quiet summer period. And for about a month before freshers’ week, we just can’t wait for the students to come back. You’re just so happy when you see the oncoming shift at 6:30 in the morning, you’re like yes!, it’s just great.

‘It’s great when you’re going from one to another, it’s great when you foil things, it’s great when they’re trying to pull the wool over your eyes and you know they’re lying.’

Lisa tells me she’s never had a bad experience with a student, and clearly she loves her job. ‘It’s all down to approach at the end of the day. All in all they’re good kids, they’re just trying to get away with stuff, that’s all.’

To find out more, or how UEA Security have to deal with everything from drug dealers to the five Ls, listen to our Documentary Podcast of the night, available online now.

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Sophie Bunce and Matthew Nixon

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May 2022
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The University of East Anglia’s official student newspaper. Concrete is in print and online.

If you would like to get in touch, email the Editor on L.Hargreaves@uea.ac.uk. Follow us at @ConcreteUEA.