25 September 2023

'We're a peaceful campus': ANU responds to on-campus violent attack

| James Day
Prof. Wheeler speaking at a podium in front of mics, with Ben Yates and Prof. Schmidt standing behind her outside the Chancellery building.

“This was an isolated incident, awful as it was. I do hope that it does not deter from visiting or attending the ANU,” said Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Sally Wheeler. Photo: James Day.

Security has been boosted across the Australian National University (ANU) campus following an incident on Monday (18 September).

ANU Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Sally Wheeler revealed of the four victims involved, two were domestic students and two were from overseas.

“Two of the students are back on campus … and two of them are still in hospital,” she said.

“[The two in hospital] are being supported by a professional team. An ANU representative attended the hospital [on Monday] and offered our support.”

Prof Wheeler said it had taken about 30 minutes from the beginning of the reported incident until the university was told police and campus security had arrested the alleged perpetrator.

“It happened on Fellows Oval, and the perpetrator then proceeded across the oval towards the student union area where they were apprehended by ACT police and ANU security,” she said.

READ MORE UPDATED: Man charged with two counts of attempted murder at ANU remanded in custody

The man formally charged over the incident and remanded in custody is 24-year-old Alex Leonard Ophel.

In an email to ANU staff and students, Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt confirmed he was aware the person charged had been involved in a previous incident on campus in 2017.

“This is very distressing, especially for those in our community who were here for that incident,” he said.

At the trial for the previous incident that took place on 25 August 2017, Ophel did not deny he had taken a baseball bat into his statistics tutorial room and began swinging with what was described as “violent force”.

Victims sustained injuries, including skull fractures and brain injuries.

Following two trials for the 2017 incident, Ophel was found not guilty due to mental impairment after the court heard evidence he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Ben Yates standing before a podium with mics with Prof. Schmidt and Prof. Wheeler behind him outside the Chancellery building.

“Students need to be able to feel safe on campus. This is where they study. This is where they learn. For many students this is also where they live,” said ANUSA President Ben Yates. Photo: James Day.

Prof Wheeler said the university was not aware in advance of any imminent attack, but that students were alerted about the incident “very quickly” through the campus safety app ANUOK.

She said it took “literally minutes” for police to arrive on the scene.

“I know that a number of our communities stopped to render assistance to those injured yesterday or stepped in to shepherd people away, we will find an appropriate way to acknowledge them,” Prof Wheeler said.

“But for now, please let me thank those people on behalf of ANU. These individuals represent the very best of our community and we’re a place that looks after each other.

“I want also again to acknowledge the prompt action of the security team, the police and the emergency services without which this incident might have been even worse.”

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ANU’s Student Association President Ben Yates said many students were “upset and angry” about what had happened and urged them to seek support.

“I think there’ll be conversations to come about how students can feel safer on their campus,” he said.

While Prof Walker said the possibility of having an on-campus police presence was “a step too far”, there would be an increase in the amount of ANU security staff patrols.

“The university has a wide range of measures in place to ensure our community safety. We have comprehensive security, infrastructure, and processes in place including cameras, Uni-safe officers, patrols, lighting, emergency phones and contact points,” she said.

“In addition to the support services available to staff and students usually, we have opened a drop-in hub. This will offer staff and students advice on accessing support assessment adjustment and for our entire community access to mental health services.”

Students have been advised to consult the university’s Crisis Support Line at 1300 050 327 or text 0488 884 170 if they need support. Staff should contact the Employee Assistance Program for support and counselling by calling 1800 808 374.

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