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Op-ed: UCLA continues to disregard student safety following school threat

By Karleigh Shepard

Feb. 9, 2022 1:44 p.m.

Last week, we endured what many of us fear the most: the threat of a mass shooting on a college campus. Many of us grew up hearing about the Las Vegas massacre, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School – each bringing their own feelings of horror and sorrow at the lives that were lost without cause. But among these feelings was a sentiment that it couldn’t happen to me – a sentiment that was shattered on Jan. 31 by Matthew Harris. But even more than that, many of us are feeling a sense of broken trust in UCLA, which waited until around midnight to inform the student body of an imminent threat to our safety. The vague, cryptic messages that were posted on social media were wholly inadequate, and most students had to rely on Reddit to receive any information about what was happening. Many students learned of the threat hours before UCLA released any message, substantiating the belief that our safety is the last concern of the university, which had already been aware of Harris’ strange and erratic behavior since at least 2021.

As the editorial board pointed out, “It is reasonable to expect the university to quickly provide students some semblance of safety or initiative,” and all current students will live with the fact that UCLA did not meet the moment. This leads to questions of how much the university already knows about other looming threats students are unaware of and an overwhelming feeling that if UCLA did know, it wouldn’t tell us unless information leaks occurred. Not only has this failure to act in a timely manner impacted the trust students feel in the university, but it allows students to feel unsafe on a campus that allegedly cares about our security. The issue at hand goes far beyond Harris, who is now in custody, and is instead centered around an egregious failure to act on substantiated threats against the lives of faculty members and students. Forcing faculty to make decisions that are the difference between life and death – not only in regards to Harris but also related to COVID-19 – is an abdication of responsibility by the university, whose stated mission and values, among other things, includes “build(ing) a community of learning and fairness marked by mutual respect.” However, mutual respect is a two-way street, and whatever respect there was before last week has been broken by the university’s failure to respond in an adequate manner.

After canceling class Feb. 1 because of the threat, administrators expected students to be back on campus the very next day. While this choice may seem appropriate to some, for many students it’s asking us to come back to a place that has proven safety isn’t at the top of the priority list. It’s imperative that UCLA accommodate students who don’t feel comfortable coming to campus after this series of events. Taking up the call of the Disabled Student Union to provide a hybrid option may be a start to repairing the broken relationship students inevitably have with UCLA. It shouldn’t fall to faculty to make these decisions, not only because it places them in a very difficult position, but some faculty members have shown their insensitivity to students feeling uncomfortable putting their lives at risk. Going back to business as usual is no longer an option, and if UCLA truly cares for its students, compassionate, trauma-informed alternatives to in-person instruction – at least for the rest of the quarter – may bridge the gap spawned by the university’s failure to respond adequately.

Since last week, a coalition of groups, including the Disabled Student Union, the Mother Organizations coalition and the Undergraduate Students Association Council, has been hosting a sit-in for improved accessibility and equity. UCLA’s failure to accommodate students with valid concerns is yet another example of the university’s disinterest in prioritizing the well-being and safety of students who don’t feel comfortable putting their lives at risk. Ultimately, students shouldn’t be forced to choose between their lives and their education. If the university is intent on rebuilding the trust that was lost in the events of the last few weeks, a universal policy that is accommodating to students and validates our concerns should be at the top of its priority list.

Shepard is a graduate student of public policy Student at Luskin School of Public Affairs and serves as a graduate student researcher for the Black Policy Project at the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

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Karleigh Shepard
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