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Somber tone as UC Merced reopens

Chancellor Dorothy Leland leads student and staff across the Scholars Lane Bridge during a vigil at the University of California, Merced in Merced, Calif., Friday, Nov. 6, 2015. Students and staff walked from the campus' South Bowl across the bridge toward the Carol Tomlinson-Keasy Quad, in an effort to reclaim the bridge following Wednesday's stabbing spree which left four people wounded and the suspected stabber dead after being shot by the UC Merced police.
Chancellor Dorothy Leland leads student and staff across the Scholars Lane Bridge during a vigil at the University of California, Merced in Merced, Calif., Friday, Nov. 6, 2015. Students and staff walked from the campus' South Bowl across the bridge toward the Carol Tomlinson-Keasy Quad, in an effort to reclaim the bridge following Wednesday's stabbing spree which left four people wounded and the suspected stabber dead after being shot by the UC Merced police. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

The bridge at the center of UC Merced is more than a paved link between two halves of the campus. Every freshman Bobcat ceremoniously crosses the bridge at the start of his or her journey toward a degree. Every graduating student crosses it again as a symbol of completion.

On Friday, the bridge became a symbol of healing for a community shaken by an anger-fueled spree of violence that ended on the span with the death of an 18-year-old computer science student.

Two days after the student stabbed and wounded four people on campus, Bianca Negrete went out in the predawn darkness and, alone, crossed the bridge. She repeated her steps before choosing a spot at one end. As fellow students began arriving for the reopening of UC Merced, she greeted them and offered to walk by their side.

“I thought it was necessary to be here before classes for those who aren’t comfortable walking across alone,” said the 21-year-old. On Thursday night, she posted an announcement on a UC Merced classifieds page, offering to accompany anyone wanting her support.

By midmorning, she was joined by other students offering smiles and friendly greetings to anyone crossing the bridge. Some students walked across with their arms linked together.

“So far,” Negrete said, “nobody has crossed alone.”

On Wednesday morning, Faisal Mohammad, a slender freshman in glasses who seemed to know few people at UC Merced, walked into a classroom about 40 yards from the bridge carrying a 10-inch knife, a backpack filled with zip-tie handcuffs and duct tape, and two pages of handwritten instructions for a plan to take revenge against fellow students, according to investigators. The note, Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke said, expressed Mohammad’s anger over having been kicked out of a study group that had found him to be disruptive.

The Santa Clara teen’s careful plan fell apart, Warnke said, when a construction worker heard screams coming from the classroom where Mohammad had stabbed one student and decided to go in. Mohammad slashed at the 31-year-old man, who was wounded in his abdomen, before running from the room. He stabbed another male student and attacked a female university adviser before running toward the bridge. It was there campus police confronted Mohammad who, according to one student witness, Meghan Christopherson of Fresno, lunged with his knife toward an officer, who fired and killed him.

Following the attack, the worst day of violence in the campus’ 10-year history, officials canceled classes until Friday. Even so, the normal bustle was noticeably dimmed, and not everyone returning was ready to walk the bridge.

Kristie Sanchez, a fourth-year student who works in the library cafe, found a detour around the span on her way to work, saying it seemed “kind of creepy.”

Myron Malata, a psychology student in his fourth year, said one of his classes Friday was held in the Social Sciences and Management Building rather than the Classroom and Office Building where the stabbings happened. He had been on his way to a midterm in the building the day of the attack.

“I was in the parking lot when it happened,” he said. “It feels really weird (today), knowing that building is where everything happened.”

As the sun rose high over the nearby Sierra Nevada on Friday, student government representatives spread out to adorn trees and lampposts along the main pathway with ribbons in the school’s colors, blue and gold. Some students gathered at the bridge waved hand-painted signs reading, “Bobcat Strong.”

A message posted nearby read, “Good morning, bobcats, we’re here to walk with you across OUR bridge.”

Under the hashtag #takebackourbridge, it said: “You are not alone.”

After two days of canceled classes, many students opted to take a long weekend off from school, and several professors honored their requests to postpone lectures.

Dave Martin and Terese Thompson, math lecturers at the university, said they expected their classes Friday to be thin.

“With everyone gone today, there’s a somber tone on campus,” Thompson said.

Things slowly will go back to normal, they predicted, as more students return next week.

As Martin said: “It will take time.”

As day turned to evening, thousands of students, staff and supporters, many wearing UC Merced’s colors, turned out for a candlelit vigil to express support for one another and reclaim Scholar’s Lane Bridge.

Chancellor Dorothy Leland said the vigil marked “the first symbolic steps toward a collective human process.”

Chris Medina, an 18-year-old freshman from San Diego, was among the student leaders passing out battery-operated candles to the crowd. His involvement, he said, was part of his own way of coping.

“Everything has been very hard to describe,” he said. “You think it can’t happen here, but here we are.”

Rob Parsons contributed to this story.

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477

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