Even as University of Texas administrators sought to calm an anxious campus after the death of Haruka Weiser, officials continue to grapple with a fundamental issue: striking a balance between the safety of a public university and public access to it.
Police say a 17-year-old not connected to the university and not authorized to be on the campus murdered the 18-year-old Weiser last Sunday.
Friday’s announcement of the arrest of Meechaiel Criner brought a measure of relief to students, faculty and staff, but left lingering questions of safety on the campus located in the middle of a fast-growing metropolis.
Sprawling over far more than its original 40 acres, with museums, concert halls, and sports venues, spilling over with student housing on Austin streets, the UT campus is a semipermeable city within a city — making, logistically speaking, sealing the university next to impossible, according to experts.
“Anything that can happen in a city can happen on a campus,” said University of West Virginia Police Chief Bob Roberts.
Despite being public institutions, universities have broad powers to escort people not part of the university community from campus under the threat of trespass.
In December, UT warned a gun rights group that performing a mock shooting on campus would constitute trespassing; the gun group relocated its demonstration off campus.
But with members of the public passing through campus all the time — on their way to a concert, a basketball game or a museum — picking out who belongs and who doesn’t can be difficult.
Wearing glasses, the suspect “looked as if he were a student” notes the police affidavit for Criner.
“The UT community, with a daytime population of well over 70,000, is as diverse as our city, state, nation or perhaps the world, so there is no such thing as a specific UT student, faculty, staff or visitor demographic ‘profile’ that indicates that someone does or does not ‘belong’ on campus,” UT Police Chief David Carter told the American-Statesman.
“The method that UTPD uses in deciding to ‘officially’ contact someone, beyond having ‘reasonable suspicion’ that a person is about to commit a crime, is behavior based. This includes suspicious, unusual or dangerous behaviors that our officers observe or that we have been advised of by those we serve. Those behaviors could involve anything from people in areas that are normally closed or restricted, or where crimes have occurred in the past, to something such as people acting aggressive, overtly yelling or threatening others directly or otherwise,” he said.
Universities use varying methods of controlling access to campus, with everything from key cards to checkpoints.
“If there’s something high-risk with … chemical agents, or represents a biohazard, that obviously needs access control,” said Robin Hattersley Gray, executive editor of Campus Safety magazine. “Dorms need to have access control.”
But restricting access to a well-used path running through campus, where Weiser’s body was found, “is really, really hard,” Gray said.
“It’s the nature of campuses to be open,” said William Taylor, chief of police at Collin College in North Texas and president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. “If we put walls and fences around them, we have those facilities — they’re called prisons.”
He said institutions and individuals make choices along a continuum pitting convenience against security.
“A well-trained force can be attuned to what’s going on on campus, but they can’t be everywhere — you don’t have a police officer for every person on campus,” he said.
‘I’m more cautious now’
Universities have long had to balance public access with security: this was an especially potent issue in the 1960s, as university administrators sought to bar war protesters from campus.
“The interest of a university in peaceful and orderly conduct of its activities is evident, and the power to insure that goal is clearly necessary,” law student David Frohnmayer wrote in a 1966 article for the California Law Review, “The University and the Public: The Right of Access by Nonstudents to University Property,” about a California law that deemed a misdemeanor the refusal to obey a request to leave campus made by a university official. “Equally evident, however, is the interest in free expression.”
Frohnmayer would later become president of the University of Oregon.
With a suspect arrested in Weiser’s death, UT and the police sought to reassure the public.
“This is a safe campus; this is a safe community,” Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said at a news conference Friday.
Students sounded relieved by the arrest, but some said the incident had changed their behavior.
“I’m more cautious now,” UT junior Kacey Davidson said. “I’m making sure I’m not out too late. I always thought West Campus was the less-safe area. This made me question that.”
Davidson helped start a GroupMe messaging phone app group for women in UT’s Texas Darlins group, a spirit organization for basketball, that young women are using to connect with people if they want to find someone to walk with for safety.
“I am feeling more cautious now,” said Victoria Dominguez, 20, a UT junior. “That’s close to where I live. That’s where I walk, where my friends walk,” she said, referring to the area near Waller Creek where Weiser’s body was found.
A safe campus?
This week, faculty were engaged in the wrenching business of comforting shaken students.
One letter, hoping to offer a vocabulary for faculty members to use as they serve as informal grief counselors, recommended they acknowledge the tragedy with students.
“Take a moment to pause at the beginning of class, or when talking with students, by saying, ‘Before we begin, I want to acknowledge what happened on campus, and that it might be on your minds right now,’” said the letter from Gage Paine, UT vice president for student affairs.
“Your students might be emotional or looking for someone to listen to them,” continues the letter. “Allowing students to voice their concerns can go a long way. You might say something like, ‘There are probably a wide range of feelings and emotions right now. If you’d like to share those, feel welcome to do so.’”
Students could feel unable to focus or concentrate; irritable or angry; frustrated or anxious; or guilty or numb. The letter included information about how students, faculty or staff might reach the university’s counseling center.
Freshman Pamela Laredo, 19, said her American Studies class that focuses on incarceration spent all class discussing the incident the day news broke that a body was found.
“I’m small, so I’ve always been told to be safe. I always tell people when I’m leaving and where I’m going, and I always try to walk with someone if I can,” she said, adding that she’s been impressed with how the university has handled the aftermath of the death, in terms of offering lots of safe ways to get around.
The Texas Department of Public Safety is conducting a comprehensive review of campus security, including video monitoring, outdoor lighting and building security. UT President Gregory L. Fenves said the university is prepared to carry out recommendations from the review.
Extra security patrols will continue and UT police are expanding the SURE Walk program that provides student escorts across campus, Fenves said.
Still, violent crime on campus is rare, with property crime much more common. Last year, three assaults were reported on campus, compared with 30 thefts, UT police statistics show. The last homicides on the 40 acres were the 1966 shooting deaths of the 14 people struck down by Charles Whitman firing from the top of the UT Tower. (A 15th victim died in 2001, after suffering from chronic kidney disease that doctors traced to a gunshot wound in the 1966 incident.)
The violent crime rate at UT has fluctuated over the past decade between 6.52 per 10,000 students and 12.08 per 10,000 students, the figure for 2014, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Education. That year, the most recent with data available, there were 62 violent crimes reported at UT: nine aggravated assaults, two robberies and 51 sexual crimes.
In 2014, the average violent crime rate among U.S. public universities with enrollments of at least 30,000 and with on-campus housing was 8.22 per 10,000 students, according to a Statesman analysis.
At a news conference Friday, UT Police Chief Carter encouraged students to “be conscious of your surroundings,” to “not necessarily walk at night alone, not walk while texting” — even as he sought to reassure them the campus is safe.
Additional material from data editor Christian McDonald.
Explore an interactive tracking 10 years of violent campus crime with this story at mystatesman.com.