Aliso Viejo Community News Soka

Two recent public-safety incidents under investigation

PHOTO: Soka Public Safety Director Craig Lee in his office on February 27.

During this semester, two events concerning public safety have had that effect: a man accused of a lethal hit-and-run was arrested on campus, and someone entered students’ rooms and rearranged their belongings without permission. The Pearl reached out to Director of Residential Life Michelle Hobby-Mears and Soka Public Safety Director Craig Lee to elaborate on Soka’s response to these incidents. Both of these investigations are ongoing.

Unauthorized Entries

On February 15, a Soka student posted on Facebook that someone was entering student rooms without permission, which was followed by a couple other students who also posted about similar intrusions into their dorms. These students reported that their beds had been made and their belongings moved.

Via Facebook, students encouraged their peers to make official reports with Residential Life. Three reports were made to Residential Life, two of which were determined to involve entry by an unauthorized person or persons, according to Director of Residential Life Michelle Hobby-Mears. On February 20, Hobby-Mears sent an email to the campus community regarding the incidents.

She wrote: “The impact of such actions is hard felt in the community and creates security and safety concerns. Be informed that the university considers these intrusions to represent serious breaches of the University Code of Conduct and Residential Life policies. Be advised, when the university becomes aware of the identity of the offending person(s), appropriate actions will be taken.”

According to Soka Public Safety Director Craig Lee, Residential Life staff reported the unauthorized-entry incidents to Soka’s Public Safety department. Lee said Public Safety has been working with both Hobby-Mears and Dean of Students Hyon Moon to resolve the case. However, because the investigation is ongoing, Lee couldn’t elaborate on specifics. “It’s an internal investigation still, but yes we know about it, and yes we have conclusions on it. But I can’t tell you what those are,” he said.

In an interview with The Pearl on March 7, Hobby-Mears elaborated on her response to the incidents. “I wanted to send this email just in the event that whoever was responsible for it was thinking, ‘Gosh, it was just a prank, it was just a joke.’ … I tend to be a little bit more direct, because I think it’s not funny,” Hobby-Mears said. “We oftentimes talk about intent versus impact. It’s great to have a certain intent, but we really need to focus on the impact [we wish to have].”

Michelle added in a follow-up email she hopes the individual(s) responsible for the incidents “would come to understand that there is no tolerance, much less humor to be found in such actions.”

Hobby-Mears emphasized that once the case is resolved, it’s important to have productive conversations about wrong-doing within the campus community. “Everyone has a right to voice their concerns, their fears, or whatever is evoked from [these recent incidents],” she said.  She believes “there is a way for us to move [together] as a community to restore our community.”

She added in a later email: “For an individual to assume responsibility for their actions and to know that there is space for them in the community to do so is part of that restoration process.” Hobby-Mears emphasized that the last part of that idea depends on the nature of the offense, but restoration is usually a goal of Residential Life after an incident occurs.

During the March 7 interview, she said, “All [offenses] are not created equal, but my bottom line is I want to make sure that people aren’t hurt, I want to make sure that any behavior that is counter to what we’re trying to create is addressed and that it stops.”

Hit-and-Run Suspect

In regards to the hit-and-run suspect, the campus community was first notified of the incident the morning of January 30 in an email from Arch Asawa, Vice President of Finance for the university. The email stated that “a bicyclist was killed this morning at the intersection of Wood Canyon Drive and Westridge in a hit and run accident” and that “an individual who was not a student, staff or faculty member of SUA was arrested on campus at 8:25 am.”

Lee elaborated on the incident, which is still being investigated. The man who was arrested had parked his car outside of campus on Wood Canyon and let someone else drive it away. The accused man then entered campus on foot, because he worked for a “sub-contractor of a sub-contractor for the construction of the science building,” on the site’s cleanup crew, Lee said. Someone witnessed the men switching cars and reported it to Public Safety, who checked the school’s cameras that face onto Wood Canyon and verified the activity. Public Safety then notified the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, who arranged to arrest the man.

Lee stressed that because this case is also still under investigation, he can’t share all the information he currently has access to.

“We have to be careful about saying too much stuff, because there are things that I’m privy to and senior staff is privy to, but isn’t supposed to be public knowledge,” Lee said.

Moving Forward

There has been frustration among the student body as well as staff about the lack of information around threats to public safety, which became especially note-worthy during the campus community town hall after ex-Soka student David Smith threatened campus with a firearm in a YouTube video in 2017.

Lee explained that he usually has the most up-to-date information possible, and is working to make students safe, even if he isn’t allowed to share all that information.

“We’re getting information that could jeopardize investigations, could jeopardize arrests or court holds or anything like that. So, we have to be careful about what we put out there,” Lee said.

Lee also said that because of his 20-plus years working in law enforcement in Orange County, he’s connected to the law enforcement community in a way that gives him access to the most accurate information when a threat like David Smith arises, and can be utilized to speed up law enforcement’s response time when there’s a suspected threat to campus.

“We utilize friends, we utilize different people that we know,” Lee said. He said he can tell his friends in various levels of law enforcement, “‘I’m not asking you for this as Chief Lee, I’m asking you as Craig. I need you to help me.’ And because it’s important to me, it becomes important to them.”

Lee said his philosophy is not to make students feel policed, but to make them feel safe. He prioritizes ensuring this feeling of safety by making sure his officers are loyal to the Soka community, something he’s emphasized in his tenure at Soka.

“Nothing here is going to happen bad to our students, whether it’s a homicide that takes place [near campus], whether it’s the bomb threat [which turned out to be an elevator component], it doesn’t matter. Anything that takes place, nothing’s going to happen here, because we’re going to make sure it doesn’t,” Lee said. “That’s the safety component, not security. We’re here to make sure everyone stays safe.”

Lee encourages students who have questions of any kind about public safety to send him an email or stop by his office, Maathai 215. “Anybody here who has a question, comment, or concern—that door is generally open unless I’m talking to someone. I’m as transparent as I can be,” he said.

For information on updates that have been made to campus safety procedures, see our article here.

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