AUSTIN, Texas — Five years ago, the University of Texas sent out a safety alert confirming officials found a body on campus.
The murder victim was Haruka Weiser, a first-year theatre and dance major, and her death sparked questions from the community about safety on campus. SafeHorns President Joell McNew said she started the organization SafeHorns after Weiser's body was discovered.
"When you buy into bleeding orange and being a Longhorn for life, you're committed to that, the good, bad and the ugly. And sadly, this is the ugly component," McNew said about the lack of security on campus. "We're very committed to seeing the improvements that we ask for. It's been five years today and there are things that have been improved. We appreciate the DPS assessment that happened afterwards after we voiced our concerns five years ago, but there's still crime in Austin in general is just out of control and we still have concerns on campus."
McNew said the inadequate lighting and security on and around campus has been a problem for a long time, and Weiser's death was the last straw for her and other parents.
"Our concerns are still there. I mean, we think of the Weiser family. I know I do every single day. It's something that it doesn't go away," McNew said. "It really just is a call to action for us that we must do better."
"These are all kids just trying to live their best life as college students and doing their thing, but I believe they become easy targets," said Deanna Vereb, a UT Austin parent.
Vereb said she's walked with her daughter around campus and has seen the dangers firsthand.
"[Vereb's daughter] has been verbally assaulted, followed into her place of business, aggressively followed, scared her," Vereb said. "I would love to see the rest of the Austin City Council members take a walk down there at seven, eight, nine o'clock at night ... right in around the areas where these students live and see exactly what it is that they're walking into."
Weiser's killer, Meechaiel Criner, was sentenced to life in prison in 2018. UT officials said they've focused their attention on upgrading security over the years.
“We will never forget [Weiser], and we can honor her by walking together, looking out for each other, and living with the kind of joy she brought to life," said Soncia Reagins-Lilly, the vice president for student affairs and dean of students.
The University of Texas sent KVUE a statement regarding security improvements:
"The safety of our campus community is the university’s highest priority. The Office of Campus Safety and UTPD coordinate with university departments as well as external agencies such as the Austin Police Department to implement a comprehensive plan that includes multiple levels of campus safety and security measures. In addition to providing students with crime prevention tips, trainings, and resources like Sure Walk, UT Night Rides and the LiveSafe app, the university also works to keep campus buildings and residence halls safe through the use of security cameras, lighting, emergency telephones, and building access controls, and barricades.
For some background, in 2016 the Texas Department of Public Safety conducted a comprehensive safety and security review of the campus to help us improve and enhance our safety and security practices. The Texas Legislature provided funding to help us address the recommendations that resulted from the DPS review. The university spent about $13 million ($6 million provided by DPS) to increase infrastructure security, including safety measures to ensure a safer campus at night and measures to ensure clear and safe pathways for the campus community.
These measures include:
o Increased lighting on streets and pathways and around buildings.
o Reduced vegetation near walkways on campus for better visibility.
o Assignment of assigned “celebrated entrances” for academic-focused buildings that are enhanced with powerful lighting, video monitoring and card reader access that restricts building access after regular building hours to campus community members with use of their UT ID.
o Creation of a “safety hub” program designed to put critical life safety equipment in every building on the main campus. The safety hubs are located within a well-trafficked entrance of a building and include emergency call boxes that provide a direct line of communication to UTPD dispatchers.
o Increased number of security cameras on campus. The cameras provide real time situational awareness and can be used for forensic evidence if needed.
o Increased monitoring of UT and UTPD social media channels.
o Stronger encouragement of the UT community to be proactive in personal safety.
o UTPD, APD and DPS partnership to increase patrols west of campus.
More recently, we have continued to expand safety improvements off-campus. The UT System Board of Regents approved an $8 million safety plan in 2020 for the West Campus area. The plan seeks to increase the UT community’s sense of security in the off-campus area through higher police visibility as well as provide support to area law enforcement partners. It is to be implemented over four years.
- Establishment of a new UT Police Department District—UTPD has finalized the physical boundaries of a new West Campus police district and assigned two officers to serve as District Representatives who will act as the primary community engagement liaisons for the area. UT community members are encouraged to email these officers with non-urgent questions or concerns. Always call 911 in an emergency.
- Hiring Additional Officers—UTPD is hiring 13 new officers to fully staff the new district. UTPD has selected the next cadet class. They began training in January 2021. In the interim, UTPD is directing resources to cover the new district.
- High Activity Location Observation Camera System—UTPD has installed cameras to enhance security in areas west of campus which are heavily travelled by students and employees.
- Satellite Office—UTPD finalized the construction of a new substation at Walter Webb Hall, located at 25th and Guadalupe Street. The satellite office is a place for UTPD personnel to conduct daily operations, as well as serve as safe and convenient place for community members to visit to address security concerns they may have. It includes a system for reporting emergencies."
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