Well, finally happened: we got taste of what is probably everyone’s worst fear. Tuesday afternoon a report came across the early-warning system on campus, telling us that a man had been seen with a weapon. I was sitting in my office getting ready for my afternoon class when I received the series of text messages. A few minutes later I received the same recorded message on my office phone. It read:
“University Alert: A person with weapon last seen near [large residence hall several hundred feet from my office]. Do NOT approach, and seek shelter. Suspect is a [name], described as a [racial profile], approximately 6 feet, 1 inch tall, with dreadlocks. Last seen wearing a white hat a black coat with red and black stripes on the waist and wrist and baggy pants. See University website for updates.”
A few minutes later I received email messages from two students, who informed me that they wouldn’t make class tonight because of the reports of the gunman. I couldn’t blame them. Whatever we were going to cover in class wasn’t worth getting shot over.
Since the building in the report was right next to my office, I crossed the hallway and knocked on a colleague’s door to see if there was any commotion in the courtyard and parking lot below. Surely, with an alert that went out to 20 thousand students, the university cops would be out in force. But no, there wasn’t anything happening. It was nice day, temperature was in the 40s, and it was sunny. I went back to my office and left the door ajar, so I could see and hear what was going on outside. Before I went to class, I knocked on a door and interrupted another colleague, who was giving a quiz and told her about the reports. My eldest daughter and two of her friends are in that class.
In terms of an emergency plan, we didn’t have much to go on. Several months before, the university gave us emergency training to bring themselves into compliance with state law. They packed a large group of faculty into a conference room and held us hostage for an hour and a half while a guy covered what to do in a weather and fire emergency. The highlight of the meeting came when the facilities management guy asked us if we knew where the fire extinguishers were, and then informed us that it really didn’t matter if we knew or not, because we hadn’t been trained to use them. In any case, the rules of thumb were pretty simple: in a tornado, stay in doors, stay away from windows, and stay low. In a fire or earthquake, leave the building with your students and meet at the designated place. However, none of this was relevant for the current situation. We were on our own.
I went ahead to class and most of the students were there. We started our discussion about Indonesian butterflies and natural camouflage, but everyone was distracted. I, too, found myself looking out the window every chance I could. While the students were working in groups, I wondered what we would do if someone came in to the room with a weapon. The door to the room has a lock, but it can’t be locked from the inside. I thought about the teacher at Sandy Hook that had her kids hide in cabinets, and surveilled the room. Nothing. I thought for a second about MacGiver-rigging the door with my belt to keep it from opening, but it was useless. There was no place to hide. Maybe we could get one or two behind the desk and another two behind the pull-down screen, but we were shit out of luck. We were sitting ducks.
One student in the front row couldn’t take it anymore and asked if there were locks on the doors. She is a sweet girl, participates a lot. I could see she was worried. Everyone was antsy. Even though we didn’t put it into words, we knew what could happen. The blond-haired girl who sits in the second row received a telephone call and handed me her phone. It was the university emergency system, once again reiterating the report to stay indoors. Two of my colleagues that teach at the same time decided not to let their students go when class ended at four o’clock. It wasn’t like they had to convince them. The official policy is that we can’t prevent them from leaving, but they wanted someone to tell them to stay put. They were just kids and none of them wanted to come face-to-face with a shooter. After my two colleagues discovered that the classroom doors didn’t lock, they marched their students into the computer lab, a room that has a lock, pulled the curtain closed, and turned off the lights.
My eldest daughter sent me a series of messages from the lab:
Her: People aren’t allowed in the hallway. What floor you on?
Me: I’m on the second floor.
Her: Apparently the dude is in the building on the dude is on the first floor. My teacher called the main office and they told her to stay put. We’re all in the lab. At least the door has a lock.
Me: Is there room for more?
Me: Tell them I am coming with my group.
While I didn’t want to start a panic, I wasn’t going to sit around. I told my students to gather up their things and that we were going to the lab, which was only a couple hundred feet away. Once we were in the hall, they broke into a trot, heading down the hall. Originally I assumed that we would enter through another door, so it took us an extra few seconds to find the hallway. The room was dark and a curtain covered the small glass window. When we approached the door, someone on the inside pulled back the curtain and said, “It’s Gabacho. Open up.” It was like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie where the surviving humans find temporary refuge from the barbarians behind high walls and gates. There were about 60 people in the lab hunkered down, and waiting. One girl was sweating profusely. We were there for about 10 minutes before we got the all clear sign. Apparently, the police picked the guy up at the train station, about six blocks away.
It was hard to pick up where we left off in class. Students were anxious and having difficulty focusing. I guess it is the effect of a freak out. The nerves stay with you until you put it into words. I decided to unload my thoughts in front of them. Maybe they would loosen up if they saw someone else verbalizing it. I said, “I don’t know about you all but I am disappointed with this place. No locks on the door, crappy information, and hey, we’re sitting here saying if the guy is right next door in the residence hall, where the fuck is the Popo? I mean, where’s my goddamn perimeter, yellow tape, crowd control, sirens, choppers over head, flashing lights, red and blue teams ready to storm the building, and a fat dude with a bullhorn, telling the guy to ‘come out with his hands up.’ Did you see any of that shit? Hell, no. But, let me tell ya, if the pigs thought we had maybe a beer in here, or if they thought someone was smoking a blunt, they’d be kicking the doors down.”
Maybe that was the teachable moment.
Later on, Tuesday night, the university spokesperson released a statement:
An incorrect report of a man with a gun Tuesday led to a search across the campus, lockdowns at the laboratory schools, dinning centers, residence halls and the arrest of the suspect at the Amtrak station.
Apparently, the initial report that stated that a man from Chicago allegedly “displayed a handgun of some type” was “based on the fear he might have access to a weapon.”
At least we know what to do now.