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Editorial: UNM considers securing its perimeter to make campus safer; critics throw up walls

It’s a great example of thinking outside the … fence.

One of the top priorities for University of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes when she took the job last year was to tackle the issue of campus safety. With good reason. The university has been struggling with declining enrollment, and when it comes to parents considering UNM for their kids, it’s really not possible to separate the urban campus from Albuquerque crime and what constitutes a safe environment.

“I talk to parents going through orientation, and in almost every session, they talk about homeless individuals on campus and ask ‘what can you do to stop this?’ ” says Rob Burford, the university’s compliance director. “I know this fence or whatever is out there. Parents have asked directly. ‘Why don’t you have something like that?’ ”

So the suggestion of building some type of fence around UNM – or at least parts of UNM – is an idea that merits serious consideration. A study commissioned by the school suggests installing an 8- to 10-foot wrought iron fence around the main campus, with controlled access points for vehicles and pedestrians. Letters critical of the plan followed the announcement in last week’s story by Journal reporter Ryan Boetel, with the common theme a fence “dehumanizes community members, does not address major crime concerns, and contradicts the university’s mission.”

Stokes emphasizes no decisions have been made and any plans to move forward would involve extensive conversations with the university community. That’s smart.

But let’s face it. Central Avenue in particular can attract a rough crowd of panhandlers, gangbangers and down-and-outers. Business owners recently told the City Council that vandalism and crime on Central are worse today than they have ever seen. And there is absolutely nothing separating UNM from the busy pedestrian and vehicle thoroughfare. In fact, it’s difficult to know where the campus property actually starts.

Just last year, UNM’s Communications and Journalism Department added key-card doors to limit access to its building next to Central because “nonstudents” were locking themselves in bathroom stalls for hours, leaving behind needles and congregating in the student lounge. The key cards were a good move. After all, UNM isn’t Starbucks. A recent visit to the main administrative building on campus found every office door closed – except for Stokes’ – in part a reaction to “nonstudents” with no business there tending to wander through.

Last month, a UNM baseball player was shot to death along Central near Nob Hill – a case that has rocked the city and the university. The deceased, Jackson Weller, apparently made the fatal mistake of trying to protect his date after she was knocked to the ground in a food stand line.

Talking about Weller’s death, crime and safety, baseball coach Ray Birmingham said Tuesday, “We’re all concerned. … We need to be able to tell parents we’ll protect their boys and girls when they come here.”

While a perimeter fence won’t in and of itself guarantee safety or stop campus crime, it could be a meaningful step toward a safer and more student-friendly environment. The main campus is currently accessible at virtually any point along the boundaries of Central, University, Lomas and Girard.

UNM has a long tradition of being open to the community, but it’s right for officials to consider whether unfettered access still makes sense. And a fence around a university is not unheard of – Harvard has one, so does USC (along with ID checks, fingerprint scanners, license plate readers and surveillance cameras), ditto for the University of Texas-Austin (with a single point of entry for access after hours by students, faculty and staff with a key card).

The study details various steps that can be taken to limit access and remain a community-friendly campus. Nobody wants to stop people from going to Popejoy Hall or kids from going to camps. But in 2017 there were 18 rapes, 39 burglaries and 15 aggravated assaults, according to campus crime data.

One parent related how her teenage son was on campus waiting for a shuttle bus when a man next to him pulled out a gun and demanded money from another person at the bus stop. The bus arrived, the gun was put away, and her son quickly stepped aboard. When Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham dispatched 50 State Police officers to Albuquerque after the Weller shooting, she said area residents have a right to feel safe. She’s right. That certainly applies to the 24,000 or so students on the main campus, along with faculty and staff. It’s also worth noting seven residence halls are located on the main campus. Shouldn’t those students and their parents expect the same level of security one would find in a gated apartment complex – especially considering freshmen, with some exceptions, are now required to live on campus?

Ryan Gregg, staff council president, summed it up by saying he appreciates that Stokes and the administration are taking seriously the need to balance safety with being open to the community.

UNM under Stokes has taken a wide range of safety measures such as better surveillance of parking lots, more patrols by UNM’s 40 police officers and working agreements with UNM officers and the Albuquerque Police Department. The UNM force will grow by five in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The administration and regents should move forward with serious discussions on a perimeter fence that would help these officers by directing campus ingress to designated gates. The discussions should involve all stakeholders. And decision-makers should keep in mind the top priority is the safety and security of students, faculty and staff.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.