Police presence beefed up following week of assaults


The suspect who struck five times in the last six months appears to be “comfortable” with the area surrounding Sheridan, police told about 100 attendees at Tuesday night’s town hall meeting held in response to the two attacks that occurred last week.

“He is comfortable in his surroundings. Whether that person resides here or works here, or goes to school here or not, is yet to be seen,” said Const. Martin  Power, one of two Halton Regional Police representatives at the meeting in Trafalgar’s gym.

Along with Power was college president Jeff Zabudsky, student union president Jenna Pulver and Sheridan’s director of security Michael Burjaw, as well as a representative from CrimeStoppers and a Halton Police liaison who will be on campus all week.

Each speaker gave a short presentation based on their role in the response to the string of attacks that have occurred between August and February. The floor was then opened up to questions from the public. Unable to answer all of the questions due to time constraints, Sheridan’s Christine Szustaczek directed students’ questions be submitted to the college’s security website.

Burjaw said the school is committed to increasing security measures within the forest. They plan on adding emergency stations and security cameras along the higher traffic trails, but were unable to offer a firm date.

“We are even considering putting public art along the pathways and making it more of a meeting place and a friendly place where people would be and hanging around,” said Burjaw.

The two assaults that recently occurred on campus happened only two days apart.

A female was sexually assaulted while walking alone along the trails on the evening of Feb. 4. The victim bit the suspect on the hand and eventually managed to escape.

On the evening of Feb. 6, a female student was assaulted near Trafalgar Rd. in a well-lit area. Police say the victim was walking when the suspect approached her from behind and grabbed her backpack. The victim then screamed and struck the suspect with the bag, causing him to run off.

According to police, officers are patrolling the trails to find someone who matches the description given by the victims of the assaults.

Although descriptions of all five incidents have been similar, leading police to believe that there is only one suspect, it’s still possible that there is more than one offender.

Police are searching for a male suspect who is described as 5-foot-4 to 5-foot-7, thin or medium build and between 20 to 30 years old. He was last seen wearing a dark jacket with a hood lined with a light coloured material and/or fur, as well as a dark ski mask.

Despite many requests from attendees at the 90-minute meeting for more details about the suspect, Power said it is hard to get a description of him because he wears a mask. He did confirm that all victims are Sheridan students and there are about 20 officers are investigating the assaults.

Zabudsky said there are plans to increase lighting along the trails and to widen and straighten the paths to give walkers a clear view while walking in the woods. It will then be harder for predators to hide because students could better see from one end to the other of a trail.

He added that it’s too soon to have a time frame or funding plans for the work.

Sheridan has hired three new security guards since the attacks in the fall. A new all-season utility vehicle has been purchased to monitor the trails during the winter, and security is adding another emergency station outside of the old residence building once weather permits. The emergency stations connect students directly to campus security.

E-mail notices from Burjaw remind students that security officers are available around the clock to provide escorts to students and employees. Staff will walk students to all points on campus, including through the woods near Trafalgar.

Burjaw recommends students be aware of their surroundings and walk in pairs while in the forest. He said almost every exit from the forest has the security’s phone number posted.

Some students questioned the college’s methods of notifying students about the assaults, especially for those in a joint UTM program. One said he had only received one email at his Sheridan account, and another questioned why there had been no website or social media announcement of the latest assaults.

The Student Union has also not notified students via its websites about campus assaults. Pulver told the crowd that the SU stresses its safety initiatives, and invited people to take a SafeWalk whistle on their way out of the gym.

The SafeWalk program provides a male and female staff member to escort students through parking lots, to residences and along campus pathways.

Students can arrange for a security or SafeWalk escort at the Trafalgar Campus by contacting security at 905-815-4044.

Norman Bellefontaine, chair of CrimeStoppers Halton, encouraged anyone with any information on the attacks to submit an anonymous tip to his organization. He appealed to the fact that students are often cash-strapped, and said submitting a tip that leads to an arrest results in a cash reward. He reassured students that since tips are submitted anonymously, they shouldn’t worry about “ratting out” an individual.

“We want you to rat them out,” said Bellefontaine.

Carla Draper, community liaison for Halton Police, made a point of emphasizing the services students have to keep them safe on their walk home when she spoke at Tuesday’s town hall. Outside of those services, she said students can do plenty on their own to help ensure their safety.

“Let’s get unplugged. Why do we walk around with our heads down looking at our cellphones? Why are we texting and walking?” she asked the crowd. “You’re not seeing what’s really happing when you’re doing that.”

If a student does come under attack, there are things they can do to scare off or fight back against the attacker.

“You could scream as loud as you can, you can dig your heels in the back of their shin. You could use your fists on the lower part of their body,” she said. “You could do whatever it takes to keep yourself safe, but your voice is big.”

She also said students can use some everyday items as a last line of defense, using the example of always having a set of keys in hand and at the ready.

“Put the main keys in the fingers of your hands,” she said. “If you needed to, you jab it right in the eye, in the nose, in the ears.”

The first sexual assault was in August when a female student received external wounds before managing to escape.

On Oct. 5, there were two cases of attempted sexual assault. In both incidents the victims screamed and the attacker fled. One victim reported the incident happening behind the Athletic Building while another incident was reported along the southeast trails of the woods.

Oakville Mayor Rob Burton, who was not at the meeting due to a scheduling conflict, is confident that apprehending the suspect is a matter of when, not if. He claims there is no police force in Canada better able to solve crimes.

“In the meantime I urge everyone to take extra care and to be safe,” added Burton.

In November, two incidents of violent or threatening behaviour involving Sheridan students occurred off campus.

The first took place on Nov. 19. Three men followed a female student along Trafalgar Rd. and Marlborough Ct., and became verbally abusive. One of the men grabbed the student’s arm. She fell to the ground while kicking and screaming at the attacker in an attempt to free herself. A nearby motorist honked and yelled at the attackers, who then fled.

The next day, a suspicious man walking in the Upper Middle Rd. and Martindale Ave. area followed two female students. The students ran to a nearby convenience store, who the man followed them in to. The girls waited at the convenience store and the man eventually ran off.

– with files from Jeanylyn Lopez, Chad Mason-Aubertin, Samantha Maich, Sam Taskie, Chris Coutts, Frank Butty, Catarina Muia