Emily Tejml walked with her family Aug. 8 in the shadow of the The University of Texas at Austin Tower, the perch from which 50 years ago a sniper opened fire at random on the people below.
Tejml, a Hutto resident, is a freshman at UT in the first academic year since freshman Haruka Weiser was slain on campus. Tejml said she feels safe walking on campus, especially with the university saying it will raise security standards. But she and the rest of the incoming class will have perhaps a more heightened sense of potential danger than their predecessors.
“I’m definitely going to be more aware of my surroundings and cautious of where I’m going and especially … at what time,” she said.
As classes began Aug. 24 at UT for the 2016-17 academic year, several security measures have taken effect amid a changed campus environment.
Campus carry—also known as Senate Bill 11, which permits concealed carrying of handguns on Texas college campuses and requires public institutions to allow guns on parts of their campuses with exceptions—took effect Aug. 1, and the university is undergoing a security assessment by the Texas Department of Public Safety in light of Weiser’s death.
DPS officials are slated to present the findings from the assessment to UT leadership this month, DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said.
Many security changes were recommended by about 700 survey respondents in the university community, said Robert Harkins, UT’s associate vice president for campus safety and security.
“They were very pointed in their six to 10 areas that they wanted the campus to improve,” Harkins said. “No. 1, above and beyond all, was the relationship with the transient population in West Campus.”
Meechaiel Criner, 17, who was indicted in June on a capital murder charge in connection with Weiser’s death, was homeless at the time of the incident, according to an arrest affidavit. In the wake of Weiser’s death, a Change.org petition appealed to the city of Austin to remove the homeless population and facilities serving them from the Guadalupe Street area. It garnered 3,012 supporters, but remains short of the 5,000 signatures needed to warrant action by the city.
The University of Texas Police Department and the Austin Police Department will work together to crack down on illicit behavior west of Guadalupe, also known as “The Drag,” according to a statement by Harkins published on the university’s website July 5.
The city will work with residents and businesses through code enforcement to clean alleyways and remove trash, according to the statement.
“There are ongoing discussions with the city to develop long-term solutions,” according to the statement. “These improvements should increase the sense of safety for the university community, area businesses and the area’s many visitors.”
Lt. James Mason, who oversees the West Campus area for APD, said the department began a back-to-school initiative last year that has been expanded ahead of this fall’s semester. APD boosted its presence in the West Campus area Aug. 12—orientation for international students—and Aug. 19—move-in day for students living in university residence halls.
“We’ve also started giving the homeless as much help as we can,” Mason said.
He said APD’s Homelessness Outreach Team, or HOST, has helped drive criminal activity down near the 23rd Street Artists’ Market on The Drag.
“A lot of the vendors … have actually come back, and they have told other vendors that it’s actually cleaned up,” Mason said. “They’re encouraging them to come back and start selling their products. We’ve done a lot of work down there trying to get the homeless the help they need.”
Susan McDowell is the executive director of Lifeworks Austin, a nonprofit assisting the homeless in the West Campus area. McDowell said she has seen progress through HOST.
“It is bringing together the right stakeholders—APD, EMS, community agencies and [Austin Travis County Integral Care]—in a very focused way,” she said in an email. “Early efforts have shown success in connecting individuals to needed supports.”
Campuswide measures include improving lighting on campus, building access and security, evening transportation programs, landscaping throughout campus, parking issues at night, camera and video systems, and look at the number of blue-light call boxes—
button-activated outdoor phones used to contact police during emergencies.
The UT system’s presidents have put weapons policies in place for their respective campus locations, Harkins said. Open carry, which allows license holders to openly carry holstered handguns in public spaces, is still prohibited at all Texas colleges.
“The law allows for a university president to exclude handguns based on the uniqueness of the campus and safety,” Harkins said. “[At UT-Austin], we’ve approached things differently—our definition of how we exclude [concealed handguns] in labs, our take on the sole occupant office issue [to permit handguns or not] and [our] residence hall policy.”
About 380 of the 1,800 labs on campus are exempt from the concealed carry requirement because they involve highly hazardous materials, he said. Concealed handguns may be excluded in individual—not shared—faculty and staff offices if the occupant decides to prohibit the weapons and orally states his or her policy such as informing a class of students that handguns will not be allowed during an office visit, he said. Recently, the university ruled that chambered rounds are permitted in a concealed carry situation.
Harkins said he does not believe the new law will prompt greater violent acts on campus.
“I think it’s going to be like it was in Colorado—a lot of angst until [the new law] has been enacted,” he said. “Once it has been enacted, we’ll get back to the process of learning and teaching.”
Harkins said that because SB 11 concerns only concealed carry, students will not notice a difference on campus since they cannot see the handgun that an individual may be carrying.
“If you see a gun [on campus], call 911 and we’ll sort it out,” Harkins advised students and personnel.
Private institutions can opt out of campus carry. Concordia, Huston-Tillotson, St. Edward’s and Southwestern universities have decided to not put SB 11 into effect on their Central Texas campuses.
Community colleges have another year to implement campus carry. The Austin Community College system is watching how four-year institutions’ policies are received before crafting its own.
“ACC’s process for developing policies and procedures implementing this law will begin in 2017 so that we can have the latest information on how four-year institutions have adjusted their policies and how those policies have worked,” Vice President of External Affairs Molly Beth Malcolm said.