Gun scare adds to empathy for Va. Tech
By Olivia Tattory
Just two days after what government officials are calling the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history, Rider had its own scare on Wednesday when false rumors of a gunman on campus rapidly spread fear throughout the community, even reaching national media outlets.
One student recalled the way the incident played out in his class. During the showing of a movie, a female classmate and the professor briefly got up and left the room. They returned with somewhat worried looks on their faces.
It was in the middle of class, late in the afternoon on Wednesday, that senior political science major Andrew Tona and his classmates were instructed by the professor to get up and quietly leave the room.
“They weren’t hysterical or anything, but you could tell something was wrong by the way she was acting,” said Tona. “[The professor] came back in and said, ‘Shut the movie off,’ and told everyone, ‘Get up and quietly leave.’”
Students said the female student received a text message notifying her there was a gunman on campus. Dr. Barry Seldes, the political science professor who was teaching that particular class, said he had never experienced something like Wednesday’s events in his 39 years at Rider. Although he was unsure of exactly what to do, he did know he didn’t want people caught without an exit.
“Obviously having students trapped in a classroom is something a shooter would want,” said Seldes. “I very quickly made a judgment, and I would do it again.”
The rumor in fact turned out to be completely false, but Seldes and his students had no reason not to take the text message seriously. In the aftermath of the unprecedented massacre at Virginia Tech on Monday, in which 33 people were killed in addition to the many injured, college and university officials around the country have been on edge over the safety of their campuses.
Within minutes of receiving false word from the press that a shooter was on campus, University officials were informed by the Lawrence Township Police Department (LTPD) that the gun scare was at The Lawrenceville School, a mile and a half north on Route 206.
At 2:37 p.m. on Wednesday, the LTPD received a call reporting that a bus driver had seen a student holding a handgun in the window of a residence hall at the prep school. For an undetermined reason, however, early local and national broadcast accounts stated the gun scare was on Rider’s Lawrenceville campus, instead of at The Lawrenceville School.
The administration worked quickly after hearing the news and within the hour began notifying the campus community through e-mail, voicemail and signs that were posted on most buildings.
According to a University official, Public Safety received more than 100 phone calls from concerned parents regarding the incident.
“[Parents] were pleased we followed up on [the incident] right away,” said Director of Public Safety Vickie Weaver.
Dean of Students Tony Campbell said the University’s response to the situation went well.
“We have a plan to be able to inform everybody,” said Campbell. “Fortunately, the plan was to inform everybody that it was not true.”
Such a plan is important for campus officials to have in place, according to a local private investigator, David Ziegler, whose firm specializes in training and security services. He told The Rider News all campuses should have protocols and procedures to implement in a crisis like a shooting.
“Universities need to ask, ‘Do we have a plan for an event of this caliber?’” said Ziegler. “In addition, [the] plans do need to be constantly updated and reviewed.”
Rider is no stranger to shootings on campus grounds. At 2:30 a.m. on March 21, 1993, following a party in the Student Center, a campus visitor shot and killed another visitor.
A little more than three years ago, on Oct. 17, 2003, two people were shot and wounded near the Cavalla Room of the Bart Luedeke Center. According to Campbell, the protocol used at the time of the 2003 shooting was successful and was therefore left unchanged.
“No, there is not a specific protocol for [a] shooting,” said Campbell. “The violent and threatening behavior category covers this.”
In the event of a crisis, University officials and Public Safety are trained to follow a set of guidelines to help direct the course of action. First, University officials are to contact the Lawrence Township Police Department (LTPD) and any other emergency personnel needed at the time. Second, campus officials are to shut down all campus activities and, depending on the situation, instruct the community to remain in shelter or evacuate the buildings.
It isn’t until the third step that University officials will make efforts to notify the Rider community through the e-mail system, telephone network and staff contacts.
This is the precise problem Virginia Tech faced during the events of Monday’s shootings, said Katherine Andriole, assistant program director of Security on Campus, a group that works to create safer campuses, in an interview with The Rider News.
Security on Campus officials “mainly think schools should have a text message alert system,” said Andriole. “It’s the most efficient way to alert all students that there is an emergency.”
The text message alert system Andriole is referring to is available through a service offered by Omnilert called e2campus, a web-based mass notification system that allows a school to send emergency alerts to its community instantly. According to an Omnilert representative, more than 30 campuses are using the service, including Delaware Valley College, Syracuse and Penn State. That number is expected to double in the next 60 to 90 days.
Although Rider does have a rapid contact program, Campbell noted the University is looking into services, such as e2campus, that offer the text messaging option.
Experts agree that plans to deal with the aftereffects of a crisis are essential, but the level of general campus security and the steps taken to help prevent an emergency before it happens should also get priority.
Junior Rob Sparling, a communication major, believes Public Safety does its job and successfully carries out its duties in spite of the shooting three and a half years ago.
“I think [Public Safety] has taken a lot of precautions to ensure that something like that doesn’t happen again,” said Sparling.
Rider uses multiple layers of security, including 38 video surveillance cameras throughout campus, locked residence halls and LTPD cars patrolling the campus on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Students from both the Lawrenceville and Princeton campuses showed their support yesterday by signing banners with words of support and sympathy to be sent to Virginia Tech.
The Symphonic Choir and Schola Cantorum of Westminster Choir College sang “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” by Peter Christian Lutkin, also known as the Lutkin “Benediction.” The performance was recorded and will be sent to Virginia Tech on DVD with the banner.
Princeton SGA President Christian Stuck noted the performers’ excitement and dedication in the effort to give something to Virginia Tech.
“We as a community tend to hold the “Benediction” for really special moments,” said Stuck. “It was the best thing that we could provide the Virginia Tech community.”
— Additional reporting by Jeff Frankel.