UCLA attack prompts reflections on fear and campus safety

Education department, experts recommend creating threat assessment teams

The murder-suicide at University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) last week reignited conversations about campus safety and mental health.

Former UCLA engineering doctoral student Mainak Sarkar is believed to have killed a woman in Minnesota before driving to Los Angeles to kill two professors. He shot and killed highly-regarded professor William Klug and then himself, which led to a multi-hour campus lockdown. The other professor was not on campus at the time and was unharmed, police say.

Both professors knew Sarkar had an issue with them. "But I don't think that is cause for somebody to believe that they were going to be a homicide target," said Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Chief Charlie Beck.

An unraveled relationship

Sarkar thanked Klug for being his mentor in his doctoral dissertation, which was submitted in 2013. But recently, Sarkar accused the professor of stealing his computer code and giving it away. Following conversations with UCLA officials, police found the accusations to be without merit, Beck says.

Sarkar struggled with mental health issues, including depression.


Text alerts told students, faculty, and staff of police action and then of a shooting in a building on campus. However, much of the rest of the lockdown was improvised, according to faculty and students who spoke with the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Some students even said their professor did not heed the lockdown, continuing to lead a lecture until an hour after the alert was sent. Other students reported improvising barricades to block doors that opened outward—and therefore could not be locked. 

In the age of mass shootings, what does it mean to protect a college campus?

The UCLA emergency management office includes instructions on its website for active-shooter situations, but some professors say they've never received training.

Training varies by institution, according to William Taylor, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. Many schools rely on instructional videos, while others employ customized programs complete with demonstrations and drills, Taylor says.

Fear is an issue across campuses

A nonscientific survey by the Chronicle in December 2015 found most respondents said they were "often worried" about a mass shooting on campus. Respondents said they'd thought of classroom escape routes and refrained from awarding certain students poor grades. Many people who identified as students said they wanted to be allowed to carry guns on campus to protect themselves against mass shooters.

Student threats against professors are not unheard of. An El Camino College student was arrested earlier this year for threatening to kill a professor over a grade. Last year, a student at Embry-Riddle University was charged with threatening to kill a professor over a failing grade. 

Campus safety collaborative 'a living legacy' of Virginia Tech victims

In the last two decades, students and former students have killed professors at California State University at Los Angeles, San Diego State University, University of Arizona, University of Arkansas, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and the Appalachian School of Law.

Protecting the community

Two reports can help universities and colleges protect their students, faculty, and staff, says Ann Franke, president of Wise Results, a higher education consulting firm that focuses on legal issues and risk management.

The first is the 2002 report from the Education Department and Secret Service—and though it deals mostly with high schools, many lessons can be applied to higher education, Franke says.

The second is a 2010 report from the Secret Service, the Education Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The most recent report examined 217 attacks that took place from 1900 to 2008. More than 25% occurred in administrative or academic buildings. 

Threat assessment teams: an effective, low-cost way to prevent violence

Not all students who pester a professor for a higher grade are actually a risk—but schools need threat assessment teams to determine who is, Gregory Boles of Kroll Associates told Inside Higher Ed. The Education Department recommends these groups that include people trained in psychology and safety.

"Institutions can work to publicize their policies and resources, including counseling services and ways to raise concerns about threatening behaviors," Franke says (Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 6/2; Thomason/O'Leary, Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/17/15; Pettit, Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/3; Mather, et al., Los Angeles Times, 6/2; Hamilton, et al., Los Angeles Times, 6/3). 

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