Dealing with a Campus “Incident”

As a college professor and before that, a graduate student, I have long expected that at some point, I would experience a campus incident. By “incident,” I mean a shooting or other serious campus-wide emergency. It’s not that I lay awake nights worrying about such a thing, but rather, given the high rate of school shootings in the US, the odds are quite good one will happen at a campus at which I work, and thus, I have been expecting it for some time now. In fact, when the emergency text (“Armed person on campus. Take shelter”) came over my phone on Thursday, December 5, during my American Literature since 1914 class, my very first thought was, “well, here it is.”

It was the last day of class for the semester, and I was going over our course objectives with students and asking them to reflect on what they had learned. (I typically do this right before they fill out course evaluations, so they have their accomplishments fresh in their minds.) I always bring my iPhone to every class, despite my use of an iPad to hold lecture notes and lesson plans, because I don’t have a data plan with my iPad. Thus, I need my phone for any emergency notifications. I think I failed preparedness a bit that day, because although I saw a text come over my phone, I ignored it, assuming it to be a personal text. That was a failure on my part. It wasn’t until a student raised their hand and apologized for interrupting (!) that I learned the Campus Police had issued a warning about an armed person on campus. I quickly confirmed the warning on my phone, and then came that familiar thought: “well, here it is.”

I attended an active shooter training session earlier this year. Since that session, I have reviewed in my head what to do in case of a shooter or similar emergency. I have reviewed this scenario probably hundreds of times. The police captain who gave the training impressed on us the need to review your training so that you would remember it when the moment came. Fortunately, she was right. Once the warning came through, I immediately put the plan into action: pull down the window shade, turn off the light; students move away from the door, toward the front of the room; students bring with them their phone and an object that can be thrown at the shooter, if necessary; moveable desks and tables get pushed in front of the door to barricade it, with help from volunteers; give a quick rundown of what we do should a shooter try to come through the door; tell volunteers where to hit shooter, if they do come through the door; tell everyone to breathe, and to remain as quiet as possible until further news comes in.

During the lockdown, I continually checked on the students, asking them how they were doing, cracking jokes when possible (“don’t mark all this down on your evals, please”), and updating them on what I learned from Facebook, Twitter, and so forth. When we had all gotten into a safe position, I told them this was likely nothing (even though I didn’t really know or believe that yet) but that we had to take it seriously. The class behaved very well, and were very supportive of each other. We had to stay like this, fairly tense, adrenaline pumping, worried about what was happening outside our little room, for about 40 minutes. Then, when the all clear message came through, we relaxed and went back to our business.

[It turns out a theater student had brought a pistol-style BB gun for a performance project, without clearing it with anyone first. Another student saw this person and wisely, I think, called the police to say there was someone with a gun on campus. There was never a real threat.]

According to my students, who spoke on social media and to a local newspaper, I was very calm and made them feel calm because I acted so quickly and decidedly. I did act quickly, but my heart was certainly pounding out of control for most of that afternoon. I kept thinking that I was the one who had to protect this classroom and these students. I was the only one who knew what to do. I was the person in charge. It was frightening to think that way, but I believe it helped me stay focused.

For days afterward, I felt keyed up, as though the adrenaline still hadn’t entirely left my system. I had trouble sleeping well for a few nights. Every time I saw another news article or Facebook update about it, I got keyed up all over again. (I can only imagine what it must be like for a person with PTSD or who has survived a trauma, if this relatively small event affected me this much.) But, eventually, those feelings faded and I felt confident I had done the best I could in this situation. I’m so glad my students felt safe with me; that meant a lot to hear from them.

So, to any of you readers who fear you might find yourselves in such a situation (educators, school staff, students, etc.), I can’t stress this enough: GET TRAINED IN WHAT TO DO. If your organization doesn’t offer an active shooter/emergency training, ask them to create one. It’s the only way you can be confident enough to face this kind of thing. It’s not about being a hero or stopping a shooter. It’s about protecting those who are in your care, or protecting yourself, if you’re alone. Find out what to do, so your first thought isn’t, “what do I do?”, but “well, here it is.”

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2 Responses to Dealing with a Campus “Incident”

  1. Amy says:

    Sharyn,

    Thanks for posting about your experiences. I’m glad that it was a false alarm, but I’m also glad that if it wasn’t, you were as prepared as you could be.

    As a prof and former grad student, I also have thought about what I would do in a similar situation. I remember being in grad school in a fairly large lecture hall thinking: What would I do if someone were to come in here armed with a weapon? Is escape possible? Where could I hide? (I was assisting the professor and always sat in the front row.)

    I don’t recall having access to active shooter training in grad school. Along with other faculty at my current institution, we’ve discussed active shooter situations with campus police but as of yet have had no formal workshops or training. Maybe it is time to encourage movement in that direction.

    Amy

    • Sharyn says:

      Thanks, Amy. I thought more schools were doing mandatory shooter trainings, but I spoke with a friend who is an admin at a California school, and she hadn’t been to any training, either. I think it’s a critical piece of any school training right now.

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