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UNLV shooting: Where does the community go from here?

Sean Hathcock, right, kisses Michelle Ashley after the two left candles for victims of a shooting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Las Vegas. The two graduated from the school and live nearby. (AP Photo/John Locher)
John Locher/AP
Sean Hathcock, right, kisses Michelle Ashley after the two left candles for victims of a shooting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Las Vegas. The two graduated from the school and live nearby. (AP Photo/John Locher)

For much of the world — even if they’ve been here, even if they love Las Vegas — the UNLV shooting has come and passed. It was, after all, the 29th college campus shooting this year. And there have been 51 on K-12 school campuses.

Three professors dead. A 38-year-old man hospitalized. An entire campus terrorized.

And many say nothing will change. Many said that more than a decade ago, when a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Conn.

But those who were on the UNLV campus last week, even those who weren’t there, won’t forget. The terror and feelings they felt are burned into memory. Into dreams and nightmares.

Talking with State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann, UNLV English professor Doug Unger said professors and staff throughout Nevada are already working on proposals for administrators in the Nevada System of Higher Education.

“(We’ll have) a series of bullet points to present to the NSHE, regents and campus leaders to increase security 10-fold, 12-fold, however much is necessary,” he said. “Replacing all office doors with a system that electronically locks. Possibly, the entrance that comes off University Avenue-Maryland Parkway and adding police staff to that to make sure they can monitor who is on and off campus.”

Amanda Morgan, an associate professor-in-residence, was in Beam Hall where the shooting took place. She and her students, about 30 of them, huddled under desks, but they couldn’t block the door — it opened outwards and locked from the outside. And the desks were bolted down.

“There was literally nothing big and heavy that I could use to barricade the door,” she said. “You know, you want to hide, but I have 35 plastic chairs that I could stack up — but the door also swings out.”

She said students were texting loved ones; one student had a panic attack. When police finally came in, they rushed outside and passed the body of the deceased shooter. He’s been identified as 67-year-old Anthony Polito.

Las Vegas police said Polito had created a list of targets at both UNLV and East Carolina University. A former professor, he had been turned down for jobs and UNLV and other institutions in Nevada.

The three people he killed — Dr. Cha Jan “Jerry” Chang, Dr. Naoko Takemaru and Dr. Patricia Navarro-Velez — were all people of color. The fourth shooting victim survived and is recovering in the hospital. He is also a person of color.

Unger said before the shooting, he has learned that Polito had talked with others in the building. Though the killer kept a list of targets, including white people, Unger said it appeared as though he specifically went after people of color.

“It’s something that’s kept me awake nights ever since the event,” Unger said. “UNLV administration must acknowledge that this shooter … in the moment when he couldn’t find the professors on that list, picked out minority faculty to kill."

He added, “So I’m not sure what we can do as a community, except to acknowledge that fact, make sure we understand there is this racist impulse often associated with these shootings … and double down our commitment to fight racism … everywhere.”

As Unger and others hunkered down away from the shooting — people were ordered and asked to stay in place — all kinds of misinformation and rumor was being broadcast on social media. Some posts said there were two shooters; early on posts said there were eight victims.

As their reading this information, Unger added, Las Vegas police went from building to building, clearing them in case there had been another shooter involved. Unger said they battered through doors; some wore police gear over plain clothes. One of Unger’s colleagues stepped outside, he said, and “had a gun put into his face” and was taken into another building by Metro’s SWAT team.

Unger praised UNLV police who responded to the emergency in 78 seconds. “They were amazing … they risked their lives and nearly lost their lives taking out that shooter.”

But he hopes to be able to talk to Las Vegas police about how they respond to calls like this.

“Why is it protocol to batter-ram doors in? Is there another way to do this? I know they were just doing their jobs, but on the other hand, there were innocents … who were traumatized by the SWAT team action for hours after the event.”

In the four hours as they waited for police to clear the campus, Unger said students weren’t crying. they seemed more in shock. Clinical counselor Dan Ficalora said the full impact of trauma like this can come days later. And with the holiday break coming up, he said students and faculty might be in more need when classes resume in January.

Guests: Amanda Morgan, associate professor in residence, social and behavioral health, UNLV; Doug Unger, president, Nevada Faculty Alliance — UNLV chapter; Clement Gelly, MFA student, UNLV; Dan Ficalora, clinical counselor, Bridge Counseling Associates

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.
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