Doors without locks, text alert problems: UA community raises safety concerns following shooting

Alison Steinbach
Arizona Republic

The killing of a University of Arizona professor in his office building Oct. 5 is raising questions about what went wrong and how to better safeguard college campuses that are open to the public.

Some people on the Tucson campus that day said they weren’t sure what to do during the shooting and didn’t have enough information or training to confidently stay safe. Another said classroom doors didn't have locks. A few said the university alerts were delayed or vague — or that they didn’t receive the emergency texts at all.

University leaders have said they would listen to all experiences and suggestions as they seek to improve campus safety.

While the shooting was targeted, it has raised concerns about the response to both known threatening individuals and potential mass shootings.

“I think the institution has a lot of responsibility at this point for systematically figuring out not only what worked, but more importantly what tragically did not work, and fixing it,” said Leila Hudson, chair of the faculty at UA.

Authorities say Thomas Meixner, a professor and head of the Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences, was shot by a former student who previously was expelled and banned from campus. Someone in the department’s Harshbarger building called campus police when they saw the former student enter, as they knew he wasn’t allowed there, but the killing happened before police arrived.

University of Arizona President Robert C Robbins wrote a statement, calling Thomas Meixner a "beloved" member of the community, and asking that the privacy of Meixner's family be respected.

The person arrested in the killing, Murad Dervish, fled campus and was apprehended by police during a traffic stop later that day. He was later indicted on seven felony charges, including first-degree murder.

He had previously threatened and harassed university staff who work in the hydrology building multiple times and had a history of violence, according to police and court records. University officials had requested the Pima County Attorney’s Office charge the former student for threatening behavior twice this year, but the county attorney declined based on the evidence.

UA President Robert Robbins said Tuesday that the university has retained PAX Group, LLC, a crisis and safety consulting firm, to help assess campus security, including how UA handled this particular incident both before it happened and during the shooting. Experts will submit to UA an initial report and recommendations for improving campus safety. 

UA president:Prosecutors didn't file charges for threats prior to professor's shooting death

People can also fill out an online form to share their concerns and suggestions about any aspect of campus safety and security with UA leaders. 

Nearly 800 employees, students and members of the community had completed the anonymous survey as of Tuesday, according to Robbins. He said all entries were read and considered and the outside experts will use them as part of their review.

“Your suggestions and concerns center on prevention, building security capacity, threat assessment and management, UAlert notifications, communications, and student and employee support,” Robbins wrote Tuesday to students and employees. 

Other universities nationally have had similar review processes after campus shootings, and could serve as a model for how UA might proceed.

Unlocked doors and unclear alerts

Flowers decorate a memorial for Dr. Thomas Meixner, professor and head of the Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Arizona, in Tucson on Oct. 8, 2022. Meixner was fatally shot on campus Oct. 5.

Hudson has heard anecdotal accounts from faculty, staff and students that suggest the university could have had better protocols in place for before, during and after the shooting.

“It’s exposed a lot of issues that need to be addressed for everyone to feel and to be more safe,” said Hudson, who’s trying to collect as much information as she can about people’s experiences during the shooting so those perspectives can be used moving forward.

UA undergraduate Lazarus Humphreys was sitting with a friend outside a classroom building catty-corner to Harshbarger when the first campus alert came in. The two went into their classroom early to lock down, where a Japanese class was meeting before theirs.

Then, Humphreys found out the door didn’t have a lock. Students shoved a table against the door; someone in the class knew to do that from training they'd had in high school.

“There were no protocols to follow. We didn’t know what to do in this situation other than push a desk against the door," Humphreys said.

Students, staff and community members gathered in remembrance of slain professor Thomas Meixner at the University of Arizona campus on Oct. 7, 2022. Sarah Lapidus/The Republic

They stayed in “lockdown with no locks on the door” for about an hour, all the while believing the shooter might be active somewhere on campus, Humphreys said.

Hudson has heard that in some classrooms, half the students left and half stayed and tried to secure the doors, some of which couldn’t lock from the inside.

Some instructors don’t have consistent training on how to handle emergencies, including herself, Hudson said. People found alerts and instructions to be "vague and sometimes confusing," including some not knowing where the building in question was, she said. She’s encouraging people to write down that they experienced so she can help channel any concerns into a review.

'Tom was beloved':Students, administrators remember UA professor killed in shooting

Text alerts deactivated, others slow

Javier Osorio, an assistant professor in the school of government and public policy, is concerned about the university’s alert system, which is intended to send messages by phone and email during a campus emergency.

Osorio said he received no text messages during the incident, even as he sat outside just across the mall from the Harshbarger building. He saw a police car and an ambulance, but didn’t give it too much thought, noting that he didn’t get a phone alert. When he went back to his office, he saw he’d gotten an email alert about a shooting in that building, followed by several other messages, but still no texts.

“I was pretty upset about it,” Osorio said of the alert issue. “This could have been a much worse incident if we had someone just randomly shooting students or faculty or people, this could be a carnage, and people should be immediately alerted, with proper communications, everywhere, wherever they are.”

Osorio looked up his profile on the alert website and found out he was deactivated from receiving phone notifications, as it expired without his knowledge, even though his phone number hadn’t changed. Others have since told him the same thing happened to them, he said.

“It makes no sense to have an emergency system that when you need it in the case of an emergency, you cannot trigger the alert to all the people who should receive it,” he said. “These alerts could be the difference between life and death.”

Fernanda Lujan, an undergraduate, was frustrated with the emergency alerts for different reasons. She was waiting for her dog at a veterinary office when she saw on social media talk of a shooting on campus, where she was scheduled to go for class a couple hours later. About 10 minutes after she saw the news on Yik Yak, the first university alert came in, but Lujan said there wasn’t much useful information.

“There was nothing about going into lockdown, there was nothing about what students were supposed to do, only just to stay away from the area,” Lujan said. Lujan had class near the Harshbarger building, but didn’t know its name. An alert later went out canceling classes for the rest of the day, but Lujan had already decided she didn’t feel safe going back to campus.

'He loved each of you so much':Family, friends honor UA professor Tom Meixner at funeral

A subsequent alert described the suspect as having a “dark complexion,” although later he was described as “white,” which Lujan found troubling as students were looking out for someone they had a wrong description of. She said that could have put students of color on campus in danger.

Another issue is the speed of the alerts.

“By the time we get our UAlerts, they’re either irrelevant or not accurate anymore to what the scene was,” Lujan said. “If you’re walking down from the (student) union and you want to go somewhere but there’s something out there and you haven’t gotten an alert about what it is, that could put you in a potentially dangerous situation.”

Humphreys agreed that the alert came too slowly.

University of Arizona Police at the the scene of a shooting at the John W. Harshbarger Building on the University of Arizona Campus Oct. 5, 2022.

“I was out walking with my headphones headed to my next class at 2:06 (around when the shooting happened), and there was just nothing,” he said. “People were walking to class, just being oblivious to what was going on, and if it had been a mass shooting, none of us would have been prepared. None of us would have had a clue of what was happening.”

After the alerts were done, some faculty and students were disappointed with how the university handled the aftermath of the shooting, including by continuing with classes the next day. Robbins was slow to issue a statement the evening of the shooting, which Osorio said was not well-received by the university community.

“After the gunshots, the silence was deafening,” he said.

Shooting could prompt changes

The shooting was far from the first time a similar event has happened at a university, meaning UA has places to look for how other schools have improved security after shootings. And UA itself has its share of violence in recent years, too.

Last year, a student was shot and killed in an on-campus garage. In April, a shooting near campus left one person dead, and in September, two people were injured in a shooting at a UA off-campus housing unit.

“Over the past two years, we have experienced other tragic incidents, both on campus and off, that have shaken our community and challenged our notion of safety,” Robbins acknowledged in a recent note to employees and students. "While I take great pride in our ongoing efforts to protect our community, we must ask ourselves if there is more that we and our public safety partners can do."

Two people hug after a shooting at the John W. Harshbarger Building on the University of Arizona campus on Oct. 5, 2022.

The shooting of a professor was not the first of its kind for UA either. Twenty years earlier, a UA College of Nursing student shot and killed three professors and then himself. Like in the recent shooting, police believed the killings were premeditated, citing problems with the student’s schoolwork and at home.

And like the recent incident, faculty had previously told police that the student made threats against the college and that there was concern he might harm someone, the Arizona Daily Star reported at the time. UA worked to beef up campus security after that.

In 2006 the university adopted an “exclusionary order” policy that allows the police department to list members of the public who have been excluded from UA property due to crimes or other disruptive actions. University leaders, department heads or people in charge of a building or event can all request someone be restricted from campus.

'Selfless devotion':UA community gathers in remembrance of slain professor

UA publishes names and photos of individuals who are banned from campus so people can alert campus police if they see them.

Dervish was not on that list, but Pam Scott, a university spokesperson, wrote in an email that his exclusion from campus after expulsion served a similar purpose, as those in the department were informed of him. Students, faculty and staff in the hydrology and atmospheric sciences department in February were given information about Dervish’s expulsion, his photo and what to do if they saw him on campus.

Some early ideas on campus security

But there may be more the university can do to prevent this type of tragedy from happening again. 

Some students are talking about making buildings accessible only to people who swipe their campus ID cards, Lujan said. Since the former student was a known threat to professors in the Harshbarger building, perhaps that building should have had access for only students with classes there, she said.

Humphreys said a good first step would be adding push locks on the inside of all classroom doors, so people at least have some level of protection. Adding more mental health resources on campus would also help in the aftermath of events like this, he said.

“The way that this has been handled since the shooting has been insane," Humphreys said, mentioning what feels like a "terrifying lack of support" from the university. "There’s been no measures taken to put locks on the doors or do anything really to keep any of us safe. We’re just meant to go back on campus and just be fine." 

Osorio, the professor, said he hopes the external review is transparent and that it brings accountability for what went wrong in this incident and a focus on prevention and security across campus moving forward, including by boosting mental health resources that can help prevent violence.

“We need to take seriously the security of everybody and have proper reaction methods, but most importantly, we need prevention,” Osorio said.

Some reviews at other universities have led to improved safety plans on a national scale, most notably following the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.

After that shooting left 32 dead and 17 wounded, colleges and universities overhauled campus safety based on new federal mandates, including campus alert systems like what UA used.

On a smaller scale and in a similar situation, a shooting at the University of California, Los Angeles, sparked some progress and could serve as an example for UA. After a graduate student killed a professor then himself, UCLA administrators formed a campus-wide task force to create training and evaluate the school’s response.

The task force recommended the university should have emergency training more often and require all students, faculty and staff to give the school their cell numbers to the school so they could get emergency alert texts, per the Wall Street Journal.

And UCLA students proposed creating the UCLA Institute on Campus Violence to “utilize the university’s research and public service capacity to study strategies to combat campus violence,” Los Angeles Daily News reported

Hudson, the faculty leader, said the most important next step — and where better protocols are needed — is how UA can more actively respond to known and present threats.

“That is the crying need right now,” she said.

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