UGA faces new calls for campus safety measures after nursing student's death

ATHENS, Ga. — While the slaying of a nursing student in an apparent random attack at the University of Georgia last week has spurred some students to enact personal safety measures, including walking in groups and packing pepper spray, pressure is mounting on the college to urgently upgrade security on campus.

The debate over how to best protect students comes at a troubling moment across the country as university campuses have been rocked by deadly violence.

At the University of Georgia, an online petition to place "blue lights" — emergency phone boxes that allow the user to quickly connect with police — across its Athens campus of more than 40,000 students garnered over 25,000 signatures on Monday.

And the nonprofit organization SafeD Athens, which includes parents of students, is calling on the university to take on other initiatives, such as increased safety patrols, enhanced camera surveillance systems in designated "safe zones" and re-evaluating the campus' environmental design to identify areas where people could be prone to dangerous situations.

"We've been pushing these programs for well over three years, and many times in front of stakeholders and UGA leadership, and it falls on deaf ears, quite honestly," SafeD Athens board President Susan Monteverde said Monday. "And we're asking parents to help, we're asking students to help or want students to take responsibility for their own safety and security on campus."

Her organization began as a community Facebook group that grew out of a concern for student safety following a string of crimes in the fall of 2021 in downtown Athens, about 70 miles east of Atlanta.

The GBI and local police at Cielo Azulak Apartment in Athens, Ga. (Jason Getz / TNS/ABACA via Reuters)
The GBI and local police at Cielo Azulak Apartment in Athens, Ga. (Jason Getz / TNS/ABACA via Reuters)

The body of Laken Riley, 22, was found Thursday after a friend reported her missing when she didn't return from a jog that morning within an area of the University of Georgia consisting of wooded trails. Riley was a University of Georgia graduate studying nursing at another school. University Police Chief Jeff Clark told reporters that she had suffered "visible injuries" and died of blunt force trauma.

A suspect was identified Friday as Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, and was booked in the Clarke County Jail on several charges, including malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery and concealing the death of another.

Laken Riley, left, with Bianca Tiller, her former roommate during freshman year at University of Georgia.  (Courtesy Bianca Tiller)
Laken Riley, left, with Bianca Tiller, her former roommate during freshman year at University of Georgia. (Courtesy Bianca Tiller)

Clark said there was no specific motive for the attack, and described Riley's killing as a "crime of opportunity." Ibarra did not attend the university and is an undocumented immigrant from Venezuela, his status prompting Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to publicly fault the Biden administration for its immigration policies.

Other Republican lawmakers in Georgia have echoed Kemp's comments, while some Democrats said connecting Riley's death with border security is a "cheap" political tactic.

Monteverde said that "whoever the suspect is is irrelevant to the fact that UGA needs to enhance their safety and security on campus."

Violence against college students has escalated this month with the fatal shooting of two people at a University of Colorado Colorado Springs dorm room and the strangulation of a freshman in a dorm at Campbellsville University in Kentucky. In both cases, authorities arrested fellow students in connection with the deaths.

While the circumstances surrounding each case are different, Lynn Gainous, a SafeD Athens co-founder, said it's a wake-up call for all universities to assess whether they have enough security measures and programs in place to combat serious crimes.

"It's really, really devastating to hear that maybe something could have been done to prevent this," Gainous said of Riley's killing.

Even at the University of Georgia, where police say the majority of reported crimes involve "minor theft" of personal property, students have not been immune from fears of greater violence. This month, a 19-year-old student was reportedly confronted on campus by an armed robber who threatened to shoot her if she didn't turn over her phone. A suspect was quickly arrested after the student called university police for help, a university spokesman said in a statement Sunday.

"The numerous security cameras we have installed in the area recorded what happened, which has significantly aided the investigation," spokesman James Hataway said.

In addition, the university said it has invested $16 million in security protocols, including improving its network of security cameras, hiring more police, creating a nightly ride-share program and launching its UGA Safe app, which has a mobile blue-light feature.

University officials said the administration would meet with law enforcement this week to determine what else can be done, on top of moving ahead with improving outdoor lighting and security cameras around campus.

"We are committed to doing even more," the school said.

But some University of Georgia students say they'd like to see visible safety patrols, specifically at night, and the return of blue-light phone towers that would give them peace of mind.

The university was one of the first campuses to install blue lights in the 1980s, but they were removed in 2004 because the upgrade of the call boxes from analog to digital was deemed too costly and the school said too few people used them.

Students Sanjana Gowda, 19, and Anavi Hebbar-Shah, 18, said they are signing onto the online petition asking for blue lights and they're even carrying pepper spray on campus.

"It's like it's always there in the back of your mind," Gowda, clutching a key chain that includes her pepper spray and a whistle, said of last week's attack. "This happened in broad daylight on campus — somewhere that I go pretty frequently, too."

"It's just really disappointing that this stuff has to happen," Hebbar-Shah added. "And then, it just happens frequently. And then it just keeps happening."

Marissa Parra reported from Athens, and Erik Ortiz and Rebecca Cohen from New York.

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