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'We Are Here To Learn, Not To Die:' University of Chicago Students, Faculty Protest After Shooting That Killed Dennis Shaoxiong Zheng, Other Violence

CHICAGO (CBS)-- A crowd of gathered on the University of Chicago campus Tuesday, calling for new safety measures after a shooting that killed recent graduate Dennis Shaoxiong Zheng last week.

As CBS 2's Tara Molina reported Tuesday, students want new safety plans put in place – and they say the university has not done enough to protect them or include them in discussions on safety plans.

And students are not the only ones complaining. More than 300 professors also signed a letter calling for real change.

With signs as loud as their voices, the group of U of C students, parents, and professors marched through the Main Quad to Harper Memorial Library at its south end along 59th Street - saying they are fed up. One of the cardboard signs at the front and center read, "We are here to learn, not to die."

"It is not safe," a protester said through a megaphone.

The crowd wants to see immediate changes on campus.

"We are all afraid, and we are angry," said student Iris Xiao.

This follows the broad-daylight shooting that killed Zheng, a recent statistics master's graduate, at 54th Place and Ellis Avenue on Tuesday, Nov. 9.

Dennis Shaoxiong Zheng
Dennis Shaoxiong Zheng (Credit: University of Chicago)

Alton Spann, 18 – who is accused of shooting Zheng in the chest over a cellphone that he later sold for $100 - is behind bars facing felony charges.

But Zheng was the third U of C student killed in less than a year.

In July, someone shot and killed Max Lewis on the Chicago Transit Authority Green Line near 51st Street. Lewis was struck by a stray bullet while riding the Green Line.

Lewis, 20, was a rising third-year in the College at the U of C. He just accepted an investment banking offer he'd been working so hard for and was riding home from his summer internship downtown when his life was cut short.

Back in January, 30-year-old Ph.D. student Yiran Fan, 30, was shot and killed when Jason Nightengale went on a killing spree from the South Side of Chicago to Evanston. Fan was a student in a joint program of the Booth School of Business and the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics.

Fan was shot and killed in the parking garage at the Regents Park building, at 5035 S. East End Ave. in a section of the East Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood known as Indian Village. A total of five people ultimately died as a result of Nightengale's shooting spree before he was shot and killed by Evanston police.

And Zheng lost his life to gunfire less than a block from the Ratner Athletic Center and the Court Theatre – which stand along Ellis Avenue right across 55th Street.

"It could happen to anybody," said concerned visiting parent Andrea Ji, "and I think both the city and the school need to do more."

Jiaxiu Han organized the rally to call for more from the university.

"The tragedy last Tuesday was personal," Han said. "The webinar didn't really give students a decent chance to speak up their mind."

He is talking about an all-campus safety webinar hosted by the university, which did not allow for questions or input.

"We don't think it's enough," Xiao said.

Spokespeople for the university said they have increased University of Chicago police patrols and are working with city officials on safety strategies.

We looked closer and ran the numbers. It turns out crime is up in Hyde Park – with more than U of C students impacted.

Robberies are up about 30 percent, and assault is up too - with 28 assaults in 2021 compared with 18 in 2020. There had been homicides the past two years, but there have been three in 2021.

U of C representatives said late Tuesday that they will have an update for students to talk about safety issues with staff soon. They released this statement and safety plan:

"Our community has been terribly shaken by the tragic killing of Shaoxiong 'Dennis' Zheng, and we extend our condolences and deepest sympathies to his family, friends and loved ones. The problem of violence in our city has reached the level of a public health crisis, and it demands a commensurate response. We share the concerns of faculty and other members of the University community, and their input is actively helping inform our ongoing actions to address public safety. People must feel safe where they live, study and work, and this is a top priority for the University.

"The University has taken important steps this year to enhance safety, but we must do more. We are implementing series of additional actions, some announced in an all-campus safety webinar this Thursday, including:

Increase in police patrols – UCPD and CPD have coordinated to increase enforcement of traffic safety in the extended patrol area and increase foot and vehicular patrols on and near campus and throughout Hyde Park. This includes joint robbery-directed patrols and an increase in traffic enforcement involving safety violations. UCPD has an extended patrol area approved by the City Council. The University has also expanded its Safety Ambassador program into nearby communities.

Arrest of suspect – The Chicago Police Department (CPD) on Friday announced the arrest of a suspect in the murder of Dennis Zheng. We are very appreciative of CPD's – and the University of Chicago Police Department's (UCPD's) – diligent work.

Additional use of security technology – CPD is temporarily adding additional Police Observation Device (POD) camera technology to the Hyde Park area. The University is working with CPD and local aldermen to develop a long-term strategy for adding permanent technology solutions to the areas surrounding campus. The University already operates a large number of security cameras and fixed license plate readers.

Expansion of Lyft program – The Lyft Ride Smart program offering free Lyft rides for students in the Hyde Park/ Kenwood/ Woodlawn area has been temporarily extended from Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights to seven nights a week. This is in addition to the University's extensive shuttle program.

Planning with city and community – The University has been in close contact on safety issues with Mayor Lightfoot, local aldermen and other Chicago public leaders, and UCPD is working closely with CPD on these issues. The City is formalizing, with the University's involvement, a number of short and longer-term public safety strategies specifically for Hyde Park and surrounding communities. We will share specifics soon.

Gathering input – The University is gathering input on public safety from all parts of the University community, and we will be communicating soon about additional opportunities to discuss these important issues."

CBS 2's Molina also reached out to Chicago Police a few times Tuesday about deployment changes or if there is any collaboration happening with the university right now. Chicago Police said, "Out of abundance of precaution, we do not disclose deployment or patrol strategies."

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