Ethan Ehrenhaft ‘20, Hope Anderson ‘22, & Jonathan Lee ‘20
On Wednesday, October 2nd, at 9:28 AM, the Davidson College community received a Student, Staff, and Faculty Emergency Response (SSAFER) notification on their phones and in emails: “Active Threat/Armed Intruder At the Hurt Hub @ Davidson.” Both text, voicemail and email notifications told recipients to “go into the nearest room and lock door.”
According to Campus Police Chief Todd Sigler, a college employee working outside the Hurt Hub had called campus police minutes before the alert went out and “reported hearing five gunshots […] described as being from an automatic weapon.” Upon arriving at the scene, police were unable to determine the source of the sounds and issued an “All Clear” SSAFER alert at 9:36 AM. Yet for eight minutes, campus faced the prospect of an active shooter threat.
“It felt very real. There was no reason to think that it wasn’t real, considering the way our country has progressed recently with active shooters, especially in schools,” said Sydney Finkelstein ‘22.
“Especially last year with [UNC] Charlotte, which was so close to here, I think everybody’s on edge now in the community. And so they’re gonna react a little bit more to certain things that maybe a couple years ago they wouldn’t have reacted as strongly to,” said Avery McCawley ‘22.
Whereas in the past, police may have responded to such a call by sending over officers to assess the veracity of the report, Sigler explained, “that’s not acceptable anymore. You have that window in which you have to make a decision about notifying the community, and for college campuses we have a requirement under the Clery Act to provide emergency notification.”
The Clery Act mandates that colleges issue “emergency notifications when an emergency threatening the health and safety of the campus community occurs on campus,” according to the Clery Center. In addition to emergency notifications, the Act requires timely warnings for ongoing threats, such as robberies or sexual assaults, which are also sent out by Davidson Campus Police.
Sigler stressed that when responding to active shooter threats, time is of the essence. He pointed to the shooting in Dayton, Ohio on August 4th, 2019, in which a gunman killed nine victims within thirty-two seconds, according to Time.
“I will always err on the side of caution if it’s the safety of the students and the staff in this campus,” said Sigler, who added, “I don’t want to say that everything is a Dayton, but Dayton shows you the value and criticality of time […] I don’t want to be an alarmist, but I have to react, I think, in the basis of expecting the worst and hoping for the best and that’s the approach that I take now.”
Upon arriving at the Hub, Sigler learned from Town of Davidson Police that they had “received reports of gunshots earlier in a different location,” according to an email sent out to the campus community at 11:41 AM on the 2nd. While police are still unaware of the source of the noise, the email noted that “ it is hunting season for multiple types of small game.”
When sending out SSAFER notifications, campus police rely on a menu of around a dozen premade voicemails and messages pertaining to specific scenarios, such as flash flooding, fires, and chemical spills. SSAFER “alert[s] students, faculty and staff to emergencies and provide[s] safety instructions via text messages, emails, voice messages, and live spoken instructions,” according to the college’s website. Police can select which delivery platforms they want included prior to sending out the alert, given the situation.
Sigler took full responsibility for the fact that the specific SSAFER message sent out on the 2nd did not accurately reflect the scenario the call described. His team is now working to expand the pre-scripted SSAFER scenarios, including an option for reported sounds of gunfire.
“The message that we used from the menu […] was less than ideal. It was misleading to a degree. I recognize that,” said Sigler. “We didn’t think about that particular [scenario]. That’s a learning lesson that we take from it.”
“[Campus police] weren’t the ones who witnessed the event […] I feel like they handled it to the best of their knowledge. They had no idea that it wasn’t anything serious,” said McCawley.
Sigler stated he was largely pleased with the response of students, staff, and faculty to the alert. Reactions varied depending on students’ locations. In the Summit Outpost, patrons gathered in the bathrooms, with doors locked. On the first floor of the library, students and staff sought shelter in closets and small rooms with no windows. However, some students reported that classroom lessons continued through the alert. Others felt the aftermath of the situation was not handled as well as it could have been.
“The rest of the class we did comp sci like nothing happened, which I personally thought was crazy. I could pay no attention during class. I know the person next to me also was unable to pay attention. Just because we were so shocked,” said Finkelstein.
“Some faculty didn’t seem to respond. I think that we’re working on making sure that doesn’t happen [again],” commented Davidson College President Carol Quillen.
At a faculty meeting the day after the alert, Student Government Association (SGA) President Emmitt Sklar ‘21 encouraged professors to attend active shooter protocol training sessions put on by Chief Sigler. Attendance is not currently mandated.
“I think it’s incumbent upon professors to teach themselves, so that they’re enabled in these situations to be leaders because the responsibility shouldn’t only fall on the students to respond in those scenarios,” said Sklar.
Three hours after the “All Clear” notice, SGA sent out an email to the student body listing resources available in the wake of the incident, including drop-in hours for counseling at the Center for Health and Well-Being. Chief Sigler also attended the SGA meeting the night of Thursday, October 3rd, where he fielded questions from students. Proposals for improving future responses discussed at the meeting included more integration between SSAFER alerts and CatCard access, as well as allowing students to keep their phones during exams to allow access to alerts.
Chief Sigler hosted an active shooter protocol training session yesterday in Hance Auditorium from 11:00 AM to noon. Another will be held at the same time and location tomorrow. Chief Sigler said he suspects attendance will be higher at both sessions.
Finkelstein elaborated that for her, the warning was a reality check. “Nobody thinks it’s going to happen to them,” said Finkelstein. “I’m not saying people should be terrified all the time, looking over their shoulders. That’s not healthy; that doesn’t help anybody. But it’s important to be realistic.”