Education

UC Merced, Fresno State take hard look at safety, security after stabbings, gun threat

Witness describes UC Merced officer confronting, shooting suspect in stabbing spree

Witness Meghan Christopherson describes what she saw when UCMerced stabbing suspect Faisal Mohammad confronted a campus police officer before being shot.
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Witness Meghan Christopherson describes what she saw when UCMerced stabbing suspect Faisal Mohammad confronted a campus police officer before being shot.

A violent rampage at UC Merced and threats of gun play at Fresno State in the past week are prompting leaders at the schools to reassess the resources and policies they have in place to ensure safety and security on their campuses.

On Monday, a social media post attributed to a Fresno State student threatened that a shooting would take place that afternoon. Investigators tracked down the student and made an arrest within hours. Two days later, at UC Merced, a student stabbed four people with a hunting knife before being shot and killed by campus police.

Such violence or threats of such are rare at both campuses. So for Fresno State President Joseph Castro, the takeaways from the unusual week were these:

▪ Social media was a good tool to quickly spread the news of the shooting threat and subsequent arrest of the suspect. But people not fully engaged in social media can only get some information and that can cause panic. Students and staff need to sign up for the Bulldog Alert system.

▪ More officers are needed, and Fresno State will be boosting its ranks from 20 campus police to 25.

▪ Universities, unlike elementary and secondary schools, are meant to be open. So guarding them against threats will remain a challenge.

Awareness of shootings and other violence at high schools and colleges across the country has grown steadily since two students shot and killed 13 people and wounded 24 at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999. This year alone, at least 11 shooting cases have been reported at colleges and universities nationwide, resulting in 20 deaths and injuries to 28 people.

“The situation on Monday (at Fresno State) and the situation at UC Merced are obviously reminders of the complex world that we’re living in,” Castro said Friday, as the atmosphere on his campus began to return to a sense of calm and normalcy. “These are the kinds of things that university presidents worry about, and we take actions to ensure that we’re as prepared as we can be for those.

“And if they do occur, we do the very best we can to address the situation and then learn from these experiences,” he said.

I think it raised legitimate questions about how our universities can be as prepared as possible to deal with these situations.

Fresno State President Joseph Castro on incidents that rocked the Fresno State and UC Merced campuses

At both UC Merced and Fresno State, incidents of violent crime on campus have been relatively rare in recent years. A U.S. Department of Education crime database reveals that from 2012 through 2014, Fresno State reported no aggravated assaults, one rape and nine other forcible sex offenses. At UC Merced during the same period, the university reported one rape and six other forcible sex offenses and no aggravated assaults.

The infrequency of violence is what makes the past week’s incidents at the two Valley universities all the more startling for their students, faculty and communities. Castro described them both as having a traumatic effect on campus life at Fresno State that is taking time to ebb.

“I do sense a calmness today (Friday), although I think the Merced experience added further trauma to those who experienced the situation here on Monday,” Castro said. “I think it raised legitimate questions about how our universities can be as prepared as possible to deal with these situations.”

Answering those questions, particularly from parents concerned about the safety of their children at the college, has been one of the chores that the university was handling. “I received notes from parents asking questions, asking for information, and we’ve received phone calls as well,” Castro said. “I welcome that; it’s an important part of the accountability we have as a university.”

A return to normal

While the Fresno State incident was a threat that did not manifest in violence, Castro said a key to restoring a perception of safety was quickly disseminating information to the campus even as the situation was unfolding – first to make people aware of the threat and urge vigilance and caution, and later to send out the news that an arrest had been made.

“We learned that our Bulldog Alert system worked very well for those who received the notification,” he said of Fresno State’s system for sending text messages directly to students’ and faculty members’ cellphones. “But there were a number of folks whose phone numbers weren’t up to date or weren’t in the right place in the system, so they didn’t get the message in a timely way.”

Just as Monday’s threat originated on a social media platform, Castro and other university leaders also used social media to spread the word to the campus community. “That also complicated the situation because it led some people to panic,” he said. “I understand that … It complicated the ways in which people responded before we could get information out about what was happening.”

In the wake of the threat incident, Castro said campus leaders were “listening to our students, our faculty, staff and alumni, getting their feedback on how they experienced the incident here … and how we can alleviate the concerns they may have and understand their perspective.” The university also provided counseling for students, faculty and staff.

This week, Fresno State will hold a forum for the campus and the broader Fresno community. “There are really two goals there,” Castro said. “We want to listen carefully to how people experienced the events, and also to use it as an opportunity to explain to folks why we did what we did, and when we did it.”

He said he also expects to hear suggestions about how Fresno State can “strengthen our efforts so that if and when this happens in the future, we would be in a stronger position to respond.”

On-campus violence at American colleges and universities is nothing new. From the 1900s through 2008, there were at least 272 incidents of targeted violence affecting 218 higher-education institutions, with the number of cases growing in each decade since the 1950s, according to a 2010 report jointly issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education.

Those cases resulted in the deaths of 281 people – including at least 190 students and at least 72 employees – and injuries to 247 others. Those casualties don’t count the assailants themselves, including 71 who took their own lives and 10 who were killed by police during or after their assaults.

Those sobering figures underscore the importance of “looking out for each other,” Castro said. “That’s a really important theme – that our community depends on each other, taking care of each other, staying alert and reporting suspicious activity, which is how we learned about this in the first place.”

A concerned student spotted Monday’s anonymous threat on the social media app Yik Yak and reported it to the university, “and we had help from the company to identify the suspect,” Castro said.

“It validates our approach (of) everyone looking out for each other,” he added.

Moving forward

Unlike elementary and high schools, where the campus is fenced and more tightly controlled, colleges and universities are largely open to the community – unfenced and spread out. They host public events that attract hundreds or even thousands of non-students onto the campus.

Castro said that Fresno State conducts ongoing assessments of its practices for potential safety emergencies, but acknowledged that last week’s cases in the Valley provide an impetus for yet another look at how university officials respond to dangers.

“I can tell you, we’ve learned some things from what happened on Monday, and we all will learn from what happened at UC Merced,” he said. “I think it’s really important, whenever these situations occur, wherever they occur around the nation, that we learn from them. That positions us better for any potential risk that may occur in the future.”

A survey conducted earlier this year by campus-safety consulting firm Margolis Healy of U.S. colleges and universities revealed that fewer than half of the officials said their institution conducts routine post-event meetings after major emergency incidents at other U.S. colleges to reassess their safety plans.

That may not be the case at other universities around the country. A survey this year by campus-safety consulting firm Margolis Healy of U.S. colleges and universities revealed that fewer than half of the officials said their institution conducts routine post-event meetings after major emergency incidents at other U.S. colleges to reassess their own safety plans.

About 86 percent of the college officials surveyed by Margolis Healy said their institutions had emergency operations plans, barely half had done a comprehensive analysis of potential hazards and vulnerabilities on their campus, and about one-quarter of the institutions had never conducted an on-campus “active shooter” exercise to test their preparedness.

At Fresno State, Castro said that even before Monday’s threat, the university was planning to increase its campus police force to 25 officers, up from the current roster of 20. “That will help in terms of coverage and dealing with any issues that might come up; we’ll take a look and see whether additional resources are needed in the future,” he said.

“The other thing we’re doing is looking at our policies and procedures, and asking the question, ‘How can we do even better?’ ” Castro said. “This situation was unique in its own way, and it provides us with a learning opportunity to enhance our plans, our policies … and figuring out if we need to modify them in any way.”

Campus safety and security are concerns for the entire 23-campus California State University system, Castro said, as well as for the 10-campus University of California system. “It’s on the agenda almost every time the CSU presidents meet, and it’s often a topic for the board of trustees,” Castro said. “It’s an opportunity for presidents to share what they’ve learned from their experience with incidents on their campuses … and how together we can use best practices that minimize risk.

“Each of these incidents has its own unique set of circumstances, but I think there are themes that one can learn from,” he added. “The idea is that we can minimize our risk and drive it as close to zero as possible, (but) it’s a very complex world that we live in.”

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