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Questions over campus security, repairs linger in wake of UNLV shooting

Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Higher Education
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In the days after a gunman killed three and seriously wounded another on UNLV’s campus this month, the university remains one still defined by shock and grief. After thousands of students, faculty and staff were evacuated, classes and finals were canceled and few have returned to a campus near the heart of Las Vegas.  

But nearly two weeks after the shooting, few questions about what comes next have firm answers. 

University officials have not publicly released information on how much structural damage has been done across campus. That includes not only the cleanup of Frank and Estella Beam Hall — the site of the shooting — but also what multiple faculty and administrative sources described as at least “hundreds” of broken doors in every building on campus. 

Those doors were, in many cases, damaged by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department SWAT teams utilizing small battering rams to quickly enter rooms and clear buildings of sheltering students and faculty in the hours after the shooting stopped. 

The damage will likely be covered by insurance, according to administrators and faculty who spoke with The Nevada Independent. But the price tag for necessary repairs was still being calculated as of last week, and no timeline exists for when funds to complete those repairs will be released. 

In response to a list of questions from The Nevada Independent, a UNLV spokesperson, Francis McCabe, said in a written statement that the shooting had “deeply impacted the entire UNLV community.” 

“The safety and security of the UNLV community is our highest priority,” McCabe said. “The university is actively assessing impacts to buildings on the Maryland Parkway campus following the incident on Dec. 6, with repairs to some impacted facilities already underway. The university also continues to review security infrastructure and practices at all of our campuses to ensure the continued safety of the university’s students, employees, and visitors.”

Classes for the spring semester are set to begin on Jan. 16 — just over four weeks away. Winter commencement ceremonies, which administrators announced Friday, will include additional security measures, are still scheduled to begin Wednesday at the Thomas & Mack Center.

For many of the thousands of people who work and learn at UNLV, the prospect of returning to a campus rocked by gun violence remains at best, disorienting and at worst, a trauma unto its own.  

“I've heard from faculty who say, ‘I'd rather quit than go back to certain buildings,’” Doug Unger, an English professor and president of UNLV’s Nevada Faculty Alliance, said. “Particularly those faculty in Beam Hall.” 

No singular consensus has formed on exactly how administrators should approach changing the campus to prevent or minimize a similar incident in the future. 

More than 13,700 people (a group likely including many non-students) have signed an online petition started by a UNLV freshman calling for a functionally closed campus, allowing only verified students and faculty access to building interiors. 

But UNLV President Keith Whitfield downplayed the likelihood of closing the campus in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. 

“What I hear from fellow presidents is that they don't feel that closing the campus actually ends up becoming a deterrent when there's an evildoer that wants to get in,” Whitfield said in a Dec. 7 press conference. “And if you have any kind of access to the campus which — we're Las Vegas' university — we have to make sure that we have access for you all to come and go.”

Others have more directly called for gun control measures. Democrats in Nevada’s congressional delegation cited UNLV in their calls last week for national regulations on assault weapons and background checks. President Joe Biden said “this is not normal, and we can never let it become normal” during a brief swing through Las Vegas just days after the shooting. One student group, RISE Nevada, told reporters last Thursday: “enough is enough.”   

It is unclear how such measures might stop a similar shooting from occuring in the future. The UNLV shooter used a legally purchased handgun, police said, and weapons are already banned from college campuses in most cases by state law. Nevada also maintains a universal gun background check law (meant to implement background checks for private gun sales) and a red flag law, designed to allow law enforcement to temporarily confiscate weapons under certain circumstances. 

“In the larger picture, none of this will be solved until we transform the American culture of guns,” said Unger, who was among a group of UNLV faculty, students and administrators who met with Biden last week. “This doesn’t happen in any other country but ours, and that’s the real problem.” 

Some faculty leaders have vocally pushed for more expansive security upgrades. That includes UNLV Faculty Senate Chair Bill Robinson, who works in Beam Hall, who has called for the addition of cameras inside of older buildings, new panic buttons inside classrooms such as those at the College of Southern Nevada and doors with electronic locks that can lock from the inside, such as those at UNR. 

“This should have been something that they dealt with a long time ago,” Robinson told The Nevada Independent. “Our neighborhood is not as nice as it once was.” 

Robinson said the issue, broadly across campus and specifically at Beam Hall, which opened in 1983, has remained on the backburner. He mentioned “multiple” break-ins in the past decade — “people have come in and broken into eight, 10, 15 offices,” he said. That was echoed by Hans Rawhouser, another professor who works in Beam Hall who, in the days after the shooting, told The Nevada Independent that the building was functionally “open air.” 

“And every time that happens, we ask for cameras,” Robinson said. “And every time that happens, nothing happens.”

Adam Garcia, vice president of public safety services at University Police Services Southern Command, was not made available for an interview. However, in an emailed response to questions, Garcia did not commit to any specific changes, saying instead that a security review had begun and he would eventually “propose immediate, short and long-term recovery protocols and recommend improvements.” 

Garcia also said that the relative age of buildings was “not being taken into account” in the review, so much as “how can buildings be better protected.”

How much an upgrade would cost — and where the money would come from — remains unanswered. 

UNLV last significantly upgraded campus safety infrastructure in 2018, when administrators greenlit the construction of new 12-foot-tall emergency phone poles around campus that doubled as emergency call boxes, alarms, 360-degree surveillance cameras and bright, LED lamps. 

Those improvements only came after a rash of on-campus crime, including car break-ins and the sexual assault of a UNLV student inside a campus parking lot in October 2017. Another student was attacked in a campus parking lot three months later

It also came just months after the Route 91 shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017. That night, hundreds of evacuating concertgoers — many scared, some injured — filled UNLV’s open campus. In an internal university police newsletter published at the time, some officers likened the environment to the aftermaths of the 9/11 attacks and the 1996 bombing of the Atlanta Olympics. 

The new call boxes were bankrolled by a mix of funding sources, starting with a $250,000 grant from UNLV’s undergraduate student government and completed with $1 million pulled from a one-time pool of excess investment funds from the Nevada System of Higher Education. 

Today, UNLV’s budget — like college and university budgets statewide — has been strained under the weight of new budget cuts. 

Though lawmakers restored operating budget cuts made during the pandemic, additional COVID-era federal dollars have largely been exhausted, and millions of dollars in excess fees are set to be diverted as a means to partially cover the cost of historically large cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for higher education employees through 2025. Those COLAs are so large, regents early this month approved the largest one-year increase in student fees in more than a decade to help defray the cost. 

University officials did not respond to a request to clarify if they would pursue additional state funding for security upgrades. But Unger said it remains only a matter of time before a coalition of faculty and students bring such a request to lawmakers on their own accord. 

“It seems clear to me that we must go to the governor and the Legislature and figure out some way to free up at least one-time-only money to be able to implement these safety measures,” Unger said. “Otherwise, we won't get our campus back.”

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