In the days before he was stabbed inside his campus office, University of Toronto math lecturer Sean Uppal had grown increasingly alarmed by the behaviour of a young international student, an undergraduate who had taken one of his classes.
After receiving frequent, anonymous emails he found troubling, Uppal alerted the university, according to Uppal’s partner, Sarah McCarthy. After the student identified herself as the sender, McCarthy said, he continued to “pursue the proper university protocol” and alerted both the administration and campus police about the behaviour.
“He was taking it very seriously,” McCarthy told the Star in an interview.
Police arrested 21-year-old Xiaoyue Zhou on Wednesday, after she allegedly entered Uppal’s office unannounced around 3 p.m. and slashed 42-year-old Uppal with a knife, resulting in cuts to his face, wrist and thighs. The attack was “completely unprovoked,” Toronto police Det. Jason Shankaran told the Star in an interview.
Uppal disarmed his attacker and called for help from colleagues in surrounding offices, inside the university’s Earth Sciences building downtown, police said.
Asked Thursday night for additional information about Uppal’s prior complaints to the university about his former student, spokesperson Althea Blackburn-Evans said only: “The incident is currently under active investigation by Toronto Police Services. The University is supporting their efforts and will co-operate fully with the police as needed.”
Zhou, a native of China, has been charged with aggravated assault, assault with a weapon, having a dangerous weapon and criminal harassment.
The harassment charge relates to behaviour leading up to the alleged attack, Shankaran said.
Zhou appeared in court Thursday, her head shaved, wearing a pink plaid shirt, purple jeans, and pink running shoes.
As a Mandarin interpreter explained the proceedings, which are subject to a publication ban, Zhou stared straight ahead, showing little emotion. A judge ruled to keep her in custody to undergo a mental health evaluation.
A second year mathematics and economics student, Zhou struck her new roommate, Sabrina Xiang, as “quite silent.” In the week since they moved in together, Xiang noted Zhou was an excessively hard worker who got good grades.
Xiang, Zhou and another Chinese student share a small apartment near campus. Xiang and the third roommate — a high school friend of Zhou’s — had recently discussed concerns about Zhou’s stress level, Xiang said.
“Sometimes she is under too much pressure, she has to do well with her studies. She’s only reading books and studying in her spare time,” Xiang said in an interview Thursday.
She added that when Zhou didn’t return home Wednesday, she grew concerned, calling and texting but getting no reply.
Xiang said Zhou had not mentioned to her any problem with a lecturer.
A University of Toronto thread on online community Reddit shows a commenter claiming to be a student wrote a post last month, stating the writer had done something “really stupid. I made a faculty member very angry; he even reported me to the campus police.”
The commenter writes that “I sent many emails to criticize/harass him, didn’t use my name…He gave me a chance, but I was literally crazy.”
Other users connect the post to an earlier one, which stated the writer had made someone in the math department “really mad,” and asking readers to apologize to the person and telling them the lecturer’s last name begins with ‘U.’
It’s not clear who the poster is.
Uppal, who teaches linear algebra, is generally considered an approachable lecturer with challenging but fair exams that won’t be difficult if you attend his lectures, according to students weighing in on website RateMyProfessor.com.
He was not lecturing Thursday. McCarthy said Uppal is recovering and “getting a lot of love and support,” from the university, friends and students.
Zhou is scheduled to return to court on Oct. 8.