A triple stabbing during a gender studies class at the University of Waterloo is believed to have been a hate-motivated attack, police said Thursday as they laid multiple charges against a 24-year-old former student.
The attack that took place Wednesday injured three people and shocked the university campus located about 100 kilometres west of Toronto.
Geovanny Villalba-Aleman, a recently graduated international student, faces three counts of aggravated assault, four counts of assault with a weapon and two counts of possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose, police said.
“Investigators have reason to believe that this was a planned and targeted attack motivated by hate related to gender expression and gender identity,” Waterloo Regional Police Chief Mark Crowell said at a news conference Thursday.
Police said the suspect walked into the gender studies class of roughly 40 students, asked the 38-year-old professor for the subject of the class, then attacked her with two large knives.
As people tried to escape, he stabbed two students – a 19-year-old man and 20-year-old woman – and attempted to stab a another person, police alleged.
“The 2SLGBTQ+ community, we believe, was targeted sort of broadly and at large here,” Crowell said. “We believe that the class subject was of interest to the subject and that was the origins of what transpired here.”
Some students tried to stop the attack by throwing chairs and other objects at the suspect, police said. The suspect then tried to pose as a victim, but police said he was quickly identified and arrested in the building where the stabbing occurred.
The victims were taken to hospital with serious but non-life-threatening injuries.
Crowell said it was both “sad and disturbing” for the attack to take place during Pride month, a time to recognize and celebrate the LGBTQ community. He noted a “small uptick” in recent incidents targeting the community, such as torn down Pride flags.
“We all know there’s polarization in society right now, both online and in the real world. And there’s conversations that are spilling over into everyday life,” he said.
The chief said the accused had no criminal record and police were not aware of any online activity to support an alleged motive. He said police had sought authorization to search the suspect’s home.
Furqan Khan, who teaches a statistics class once a week at the university, said he witnessed the chaos that broke out minutes after the stabbing.
“People were screaming and they were running,” he said. “Then I saw the blood on the ground floor. There was like spots of blood all over the ground. It was terrifying.”
On campus Thursday, disquieted students questioned why it took hours for them to receive an emergency alert on what had happened.
Mara Crassweller, a graduate student, said it took about three hours for her to receive an alert through the campus security system.
“I was completely shocked,” Crassweller said while sitting inside Hagey Hall, where the stabbings took place.
“I’m here every day and I haven’t seen it this quiet in a very long time. It’s kind of eerie, especially in this building right now.”
Brianna Egan, a 23-year-old accounting student, said her class in the same building as the gender studies lecture let out minutes before Wednesday’s stabbing.
“(It) was a bit terrifying to be honest, especially with how long it took the university to respond,” she said.
At a news conference Thursday, a senior university administrator acknowledged the incident alert system “wasn’t activated as quickly as we would have normally expected,” despite being tested earlier on Wednesday.
“It’s a priority for us in the aftermath of this incident to ensure that the co-ordination between the people elements and the technology elements of that system are more finely tuned in the future,” said James Rush, vice-president academic and provost.
Rush called the delay “very unfortunate,” but said it did not affect the response to the attack itself, noting it was contained to the hall and police responded within three minutes.
Dozens of students, staff and faculty bowed their heads during a moment of silence in the university’s arts quad later on Thursday afternoon, with some embracing each other.
They also cheered as University President Vivek Goel announced the campus would fly the Pride flag until the end of July, instead of just June, to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community.
At the event, the university identified the educator who was stabbed as Katy Fulfer, an associate professor and undergraduate adviser for the school’s gender and social justice program.
Sheila Ager, the dean of arts, said Fulfer is a “loved and respected member of our community.”
“I know many of you know her, the other two students who were injured, and those in the class who witnessed the horrific act,” she told the crowd.
“Our campus is meant to be a safe place for our students, faculty and staff and yesterday that sense of safety was violated.”
Benjamin Loewen, who teaches corporate finance at the university, said that while he personally felt safe on campus, he worried about the well-being of his students.
“I expect in my classes today, there will be less people, some people are going to be afraid, people are going to be distracted. It’s going to have a harmful effect on studying and learning,” he said.
“In the long run, if we respond appropriately and bond together, then this makes our community stronger.”
There has been an uptick in hate crimes targeting people for their sexual orientation: in 2021 there were 423 reported incidents, compared to 176 in 2016, StatCan data show.
But experts say those numbers paint an incomplete picture, with the actual number of incidents almost always higher than what’s been reported to police. The advocacy group Egale Canada recorded more than 6,400 anti-LGBTQ protests and instances of online hate in the country in the first three months of 2023.