Miami-Dade County

Parents, students, police react to assaults at University of Florida

For Celina Rodriguez, peace of mind is a smartphone in the hands of her daughters at the University of Florida.

No price is too high for a smartphone, which can host an application called TapShield that reports crime, summons help from police and tracks their daughters’ whereabouts 300 miles away from home in South Miami. But no app can quash her fear of a lurking predator at large.

Four assaults have plagued UF’s campus since Aug. 30. The four victims — all college-aged women — describe the same suspect: a 6-foot-tall white man in his 20s with a large build, consistently dressed in Gator-themed regalia, according to the UF Police Department. His attempts to rape the women were all unsuccessful after the victims either fought back or a bystander intervened.

As the man blended in with UF’s student population of 50,000, UF and the Gainesville community buckled down. Emails notifying parents of the attacks were sent out, and Rodriguez urged her freshman daughter, Natasha Ibarra, to buy a smartphone at whatever cost to download the app. She also told her older daughter, 19-year-old UF art history sophomore Michelle Ibarra, who was already equipped with a smartphone, to download the app.

“The moment I read the email I got very flustered, very concerned,” Rodriguez said. “Then I feel better because I think they realize it’s not just Mom and Dad being concerned, it’s the whole student body being concerned.”

Natasha, an 18-year-old studying communication sciences and disorders, was already taking her own precautions. Even before the incidents, she completed a self-defense course offered by the campus police department and was setting up an account with Zipcar, a rental car company, to safely get around town.

“I hadn’t told them much about it because I know how my mom freaks out,” she said. “They want me to tell them where I go, don’t walk by myself, get a cab if anything. Anything to avoid walking around.”

Since the latest assault, UF has been flooded with calls from concerned parents, said university spokeswoman Janine Sikes.

A rumor control hotline, the first established since a student was Tasered at a UF rally in 2007, was set up, consisting of representatives from the Dean of Students Office and University Relations. Parents can call 866-UF-FACTS for information.

“The biggest issue going forward at the moment are rumors that are getting spread by social media and aren’t coming through official channels,” Sikes said. “We’re trying to reiterate and reinforce that Gainesville Police Department and University Police Department should be the only sources of information.”

Both departments have expanded night patrols by adding up 14 officers, focusing on areas near the student union, libraries and Sorority Row. Student Nighttime Auxiliary Patrol Vans —known as SNAP vans, which pick up students on and around campus for no charge — have doubled in service. When the vans are backed up, UF police have been offering rides in their patrol cars.

UF police have also enlisted 101 walking escorts made up of volunteers from fraternities and ROTC, said department spokesman Maj. Brad Barber.

Despite these efforts, campus and city police are reminding students to avoid walking alone, take advantage of SNAP vans and the Later Gator late-night bus service, download the TapShield app and report suspicious activity or individuals.

“I know it isn’t the norm, but I’m worried it will become the norm because I’ve only been here a month and this has happened and escalated and not gotten any better,” Ibarra said.

At a press conference Monday, UF Police Chief Linda J. Stump addressed concerned parents.

“First of all, communicate,” she said. “Communicate with your children. Communicate about behavior, about those expectations, about paying attention, about taking care of each other, about calling.”

Standing alongside uniformed officers spanning the county and state, Stump’s voice turned grave. She left her final message for the suspect.

“We’re coming after you.”