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Students Had to Force UCLA Officials to Warn Campus of Shooting Threat

Members of the university’s Disabled Student Union had been fighting for remote learning for weeks.

The brick exterior of a University of California, Los Angeles building. Trees line the lower wall.
The exterior of a UCLA building. (Eric Johnson)

Officials at the University of California, Los Angeles, told members of the Disabled Student Union (DSU) during a meeting that the school would not do anything in response to threats by postdoctoral fellow Matthew Harris. The school eventually alerted students, staff, and faculty after the group insisted on a notification being made.

The evening of January 31, student body president Breeze Velazquez, the DSU, and Mother Organization coalition members sat in UCLA’s Murphy Hall across from Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck and academic senate chair Jody Kreiman to discuss demands for flexible hybrid learning options for students.

Velazquez interrupted the meeting to ask what the school knew about a post circulating on Reddit saying Harris had been making threats.

Earlier that afternoon, students and faculty members in UCLA’s Dodd Hall had received emails from department chairs, professors, and other students about possible threats made against the school. 

“She [told] everyone there are shooting threats going around social media and growing really rapidly,” said Christopher Ikonomou, a DSU member. “When she said that to Chancellor Beck, he said, ‘We’ve known about that for some time now, and the situation is under control. UCPD knows — he’s on the east coast, so you don’t have to do anything.’”

The DSU had staged a sit-in earlier that day outside of Royce Hall and made their demands known in an opinion piece for Knock LA. It was the first day of in-person classes on campus. The campus was teeming with students and faculty.

Harris was arrested earlier this month in Colorado after he allegedly emailed an 800-page document containing numerous racist threats and the words “bomb,” “kill,” and “shoot” over 12,000 times. He also had uploaded more than 200 videos to his YouTube channel. Some of the videos were violent, disturbing compilations of school shooting footage layered over videos from the 2017 mass shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas. Many of his past videos also contained overtly sexual footage, some involving adolescents.

Despite the fast-spreading rumors, UCLA’s official social media pages were silent. 

“We had to basically force the vice chancellor, Michael Beck, to record a statement so that we could distribute it among the student body,” said Quinn O’Connor, a member of the DSU. “We basically had to pull tooth and nail to get this administrator to record a message that we then posted.”

It was only after the DSU and Velazquez pressed Beck that he recorded a 25-second video about the threats. 

“We will update our Bruin community later this evening as we learn more,” Beck said before turning off the camera. Nearly three hours later, UCLA officially announced that the school would hold classes online.

The next day, on February 1, Harris was arrested in Colorado and taken into custody — he certainly wasn’t on the east coast, as some students had originally been told. 

“What rubbed us the wrong way is that we were planning on sitting in, and not once did the people in that meeting tell us, ‘We know you’re fighting this, but go home for your own safety,’” Ikonomou said. “It feels behind us, but it was a particularly odd way to end our first day of striking. It was a chaotic situation.”

Harris previously made threats toward students, most notably against faculty member Katherine Ritchie, who filed a restraining order against him last year. Harris was removed from UCLA for “investigatory leave” on March 30, 2021. UCLA did not respond to a request for comment. 

Even while Harris was making repeated threats to Ritchie, he was actively teaching classes at UCLA. Several students reportedly spoke to Title IX about Harris, but the outcome of those investigations is unclear. A review for Harris on Bruinwalk, a website where students can leave reviews for professors and classes at UCLA, cited the pornographic content on Harris’ YouTube channel in March 2021.

While the DSU met with campus administration, UCLA sociology professor Isaac Speer was teaching classes on the first floor of Dodd Hall, located across from Murphy Hall, until 5:15 PM. After he left for the day, his TA told him about Harris’ emails. It was the first he had heard of the threats — no one in his department had mentioned anything.

“When I found that out, it felt like I got a punch to the stomach,” Speer said. “I’d been in a room on the first floor of Dodd Hall with a hundred undergrads at 5 PM, and nobody warned us, there was no extra security posted in the building. I just want an answer. Why the fuck didn’t they warn us?”

According to Speer, initially only the philosophy department received any notice of Harris’ threats. However, Speer’s class and others were housed in the same building.

“I can assure you the campus is not in any immediate danger,” Beck wrote to Speer in an email.

Many students felt hurt and frustrated by the lack of action taken by UCLA. It was another burden on top of the emotional, frustrating work the DSU had already been engaged in.

“That specific instance with the threat is just another compounded reason as to why we’re fighting this fight, and why UCLA is completely lacking in its accountability to the student body,” O’Connor said.

Reactions poured in on social media, blasting the university for the delayed reaction.
“This is not the only thing that [UCLA] has handled extremely poorly in the short time I have attended school here,” said Molly, a UCLA sociology student. “Myself and many others laid awake all last night fearing for our lives. No class is worth risking your life over.”