UP CLOSE | An abundance of caution

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Photo by Jason Kim .

A military-grade Humvee sat on Elm Street, outside the gate normally used by students to enter Calhoun. On Nov. 25, a fully armed SWAT team poured through those same doors, searching for a rogue gunman and hoping to prevent Yale from becoming the next Columbine, the next Virginia Tech, the next Sandy Hook.

At 9:48 that morning, an anonymous caller informed the New Haven Police Department that someone was on his way to campus, armed and ready to shoot. Police later determined that the call had been made from a phone booth on Columbus Avenue, less than 2 miles from Yale’s campus.

“Yale Police advises those on campus to remain in their current location and shelter in place until there is additional information,” read the first of numerous Yale Alert messages that kept students, faculty members and staff informed throughout the day.

Few credible details emerged over the next several hours, and those remaining in New Haven for Thanksgiving break were forced to stay put as police, with the help of agents from the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Department of Homeland Security and United States Marshals swept the grounds. Officers knocked on every door, leaving nothing to chance.

When police determined that the tip had been a hoax, law enforcement agents, faculty members and students interviewed said they were relieved that a threat never materialized. Still, some began to wonder, were the Humvee, the SWAT teams, and the high-powered rifles all necessary? Did a threatening phone call require the all-hands-on-deck response that overwhelmed the campus that day?

“We are confident that the community takes it most seriously when an alert is issued,” Ronnell Higgins, chief of the Yale Police Department, said in an email. “The University doesn’t reach out unnecessarily.”

To authorities at the University, city, state and national levels, there is no such thing as too much caution.

 

A STRING OF FALSE ALARMS

The Nov. 25 incident came on the heels of two similar ones that took place in the New England area. By the end of 2013, the big three Ivy League schools, Harvard, Yale and Princeton, had all undergone their own lockdowns. In each case, the scare turned out to be a false alarm.

“Hello, I am in Nassau Hall … and I heard some noises. I’m not sure, probably nothing, but it sounded almost like shooting,” a female caller at Princeton told emergency dispatchers at 7:52 p.m. on Oct. 8.

A transcript of the 911 call shows that the conversation never felt particularly urgent. The caller repeatedly recognized the possibility that the noises were benign, but her insistence on reporting suspicious noises speaks to a heightened sensitivity to situations in which campus safety may be threatened.

Authorities eventually determined that a hammer and chisel, not an assault rifle, were to blame for the noises, but not before a two-hour lockdown brought in police crews — similar to those seen at Yale — to secure the area.

Even so, Mike Lawlor, the criminal justice advisor to Gov. Dannel Malloy, said the Princeton caller’s instinct to reach out to police was appropriate given the risks of not doing so. Her quick reaction was indicative of the heightened societal sensitivity to mass violence in the wake of recent school shootings such as Sandy Hook, he added

“Nowadays, people realize that you can’t wait because a lot of these shootings start and finish in a matter of minutes,” Lawlor said. “People lock down first and ask questions later when they get anything that sounds like a credible report of somebody with a gun. That’s why it’s happening more frequently.”

Yale was just one of four universities in Connecticut to undergo campus-wide lockdowns in the five-month span between November 2013 and April 2014. The University of New Haven and the University of Connecticut weathered incidents involving a confirmed gunman and anonymous bomb threats, respectively, while Central Connecticut State University locked down after a student in a Halloween costume triggered reports of a gunman on campus.

At the University of New Haven, Police tracked down and arrested 22-year-old student William Dong after a woman reported seeing him retrieve a long gun from the trunk of his car and place it in the front passenger’s seat. Dong left the car to attend a class on campus, and the woman walked over to investigate.

After confirming that there was, in fact, a loaded assault rifle in Dong’s car, she placed the only call police received that day about the threat.

“If it wasn’t for [the caller], we wouldn’t have gotten any other calls,” said Ronald Quagliani, the associate vice president of public safety and administrative services at the University of New Haven. “I don’t know what would’ve happened. Thank God for her.”

Quagliani said the university’s administration and public safety officials revamped their emergency preparedness model after the Sandy Hook shootings to engage students, faculty and staff on a deeper level.

This preparedness, he added, was critical to the campus’s cooperation with law enforcement as they closed in on the source of the threat —  which, unlike cases at the other Connecticut universities, turned out to be a real person armed with a loaded weapon.

“Somebody was here on campus with a gun, and no one was injured or killed,” Quagliani said. “It’s helpful after the fact, too, because people say ‘I understand it happened in other places like Virginia Tech or Columbine. But it didn’t happen at the University of New Haven.’”

Quagliani, who was once the chief of the West Haven Police Department, added that he believes the campus felt more at ease because police knew exactly for whom they were searching. Ending the lockdown without reaching a definite conclusion would have left some frustrated and others anxious, he said, as was the case in the wake of other incidents where no suspect has been identified.

But even in the event of a hoax, authorities have been able to bring closure to affected university communities by tracking down perpetrators like Harvard sophomore Eldo Kim, who sent anonymous emails to the university’s police department, administrators and student newspaper on Dec. 16, indicating that bombs had been placed in campus buildings. Kim later confessed that he had sent the bomb threats to avoid taking a final exam that day.

Janet Lindner, Yale’s vice president for administration, added that the University found some sense of closure in its gunman scare by pursuing all leads, no matter how dubious.

“When the anonymous call first came in, I think those of us deciding whether to send a message suspected the call was a hoax, but there’s no way we could treat it as such,” Lindner said. “Then, we received a call from an employee that someone with a gun was on Old Campus. This was a credible source.”

The lockdown trend has also deeply affected New Haven Public Schools: Hillhouse High School and Wexler-Grant School have both faced threats to school safety in recent months. David Hartman, a spokesman for the NHPD, emphasized that these public school lockdowns do not reflect a problem specific to New Haven or even to Connecticut.

“These incidents are happening all over the world,” Hartman said. “You have to be more cautious now.”

Save for a single fatal shooting at Purdue University in January and the mass-stabbing that took place at a Pittsburgh-area high school earlier this month, none of the campus lockdowns from the past few months have ended with any casualties or injuries.

Lawlor said he believes that people will continue to take the issue of school safety seriously. He resisted the notion that a string of false alarms might desensitize people to campus threats and prevent universities from staging full-blown responses to them.

“That will become a much bigger problem when there’s nothing but false alarms,” Lawlor said. “But, for now, it’s not hard to think of a recent example where stuff started happening and there really was someone running around with a gun trying to shoot as many people as possible.”

 

A MEANINGFUL EXERCISE

Just three days before Yale ordered its campus to shelter in place, the Yale Alert system issued a perfunctory test email to the entire University community, which, at the time, was gearing up to host the 2013 Yale-Harvard football game.

At the bottom of the message, a disclaimer stated that instructions and updates would be available on the University’s emergency management website were a real crisis to unfold. Those instructions and updates went live, just three days later, swapping out disclaimers for bolded warnings and clear orders.

University President Peter Salovey said in retrospect he was thankful that Yale orchestrated such a robust response, as the University was able to analyze its performance without incurring any losses.

“Even if this incident turned out to be a hoax, it was still a meaningful exercise,” Salovey said in an email directly following the incident. “We are now even better prepared to address any emergency situation like this that may arise in the future.”

When police failed to find a gunman at the end of the day, some, as Quagliani predicted, began to question the need for such an overwhelming response. In total, hundreds of officers from numerous agencies manned the streets of the Elm City. They were joined by at least four SWAT teams, arriving in tanks and carrying specialized equipment.

Hartman said that the large force on the ground allowed law enforcement to conduct a speedy search, given the number of buildings they had to canvass. He added that, following a bulletin from the Connecticut State Police, local departments across the state began to send their officers to New Haven without checking whether the influx was necessary.

FBI Special Agent Dan Curtin also emphasized the importance of acting before questioning a situation.

“Until you get into the mix, you’re not going to know what you have,” Curtin said. “You have to take it seriously.”

As officers combed the streets below, students were kept in their rooms for hours on end, unable to access dining halls or any other facilities outside their suites. Claire’s Corner Copia and Atticus Bookstore Café were among the many local businesses to report significant financial losses, as their operations were forced to stay on hold throughout the daylong search.

Hartman asserted that such problems become magnified in the wake of an episode in which no one was hurt. Still, he added that the only concern of the law enforcement units involved was to keep everyone safe.

“We’ll never sacrifice manpower because we feel that having so many officers out there might scare people or inconvenience people,” Hartman said. “It’s a lot better to be scared or inconvenienced than victimized.”

Though all of the law enforcement and university officials interviewed said that they were pleased with how the crisis was handled, they admit that there is still much to learn in its wake.

In addition to tactical lessons that Hartman said the department has since internalized, Yale Director of Emergency Management Maria Bouffard said that administrators went through several rounds of debriefing and internal review to go over the day’s successes and failures.

This exercise resulted in the administration phasing a number of improvements into the Yale Alert communication model over the next few months, including an expansion of its reach to non-Yale New Haven residents.

“We periodically engage in ‘table-top exercises’ to understand the chain of command and the necessary emergency responses,” Yale College Dean Mary Miller said immediately after the lockdown. “The lesson I learned is that administrators should conduct such drills regularly.”

Such training initiatives were, in fact, conducted more regularly, at both the University and city levels.

Collaborative efforts peaked in late March when the Federal Emergency Management Agency hosted a workshop at West Campus to drill response protocol in the face of large-scale lockdowns, as well as natural disasters and other crises.

Many of the groups present for the Nov. 25 incident, such as the Connecticut State Police and FBI, were again in attendance at the workshop to undergo the training alongside YPD and NHPD officers.

United States Marshal Joseph Faughnan said that, in a pre-Columbine world, the response at Yale would likely not have been so large. Still, he added, now that school officials understand the swiftness with which a shooting can unfold, the response was warranted.

Lawlor said the nation’s collective experience following the shootings at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and Columbine High School, in particular, has forever shaped the way people approach the issue of school safety. He likened these shootings’ lingering impact to that of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which he said “changed the way people went about their business.”

The additional protocols and safety guards put in place, he added, have since succeeded in preventing any other major terrorist attacks from taking place on American soil.

“The main goal is to prevent the attack from happening,” Lawlor said. “Sometimes you do that far in advance, sometimes you do that in real time, but I think people are responding appropriately in the case of false alarms.”

 

ERRING ON THE SIDE OF CAUTION

Because there is still a delicate balance to be struck between an abundance of caution and a numbing paranoia, authorities have yet to establish an all-encompassing formula for approaching such situations.

Take, for example, the episode that unfolded at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, where reports very much like the ones received at Yale, at CCSU and elsewhere, never triggered a full-scale lockdown. The school’s alert system notified students, but those in charge took little further action.

“Certainly, we wanted to make people aware that someone [with a gun, reportedly,] had been sighted in the area,” said Gil Chorbajian, the school’s director of communications. “But we did not give the lockdown order at that time. It was more of a recommendation to stay in place until we had more information.”

When asked what it would have taken to give that lockdown order, Chorbajian did not have an answer, largely due to the number of variables involved in such a decision.

Ronald Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, said that a sense of balance is critical for schools to craft appropriate policy and emergency management plans that prioritize both safety and rationality.

“It’s appropriate that schools find a balance between keeping their campuses safe without overreacting,” Stephens said. “It’s still very much about reason and good judgment.”

Former Mayor John DeStefno Jr. agreed with the importance of maintaining a proper perspective and allowing it to inform, rather than distort, how to proceed after a crisis unfolds. Doing anything more or anything less would have been a misstep, he said.

“It never analogized in my mind to something like a Sandy Hook,” DeStefano said. “You’re responding to the threat that was called in.”

Those University officials and law enforcement agents involved in Yale’s November lockdown maintain that they did react appropriately, setting a standard for emergency preparedness that they hope will serve them well in the future.

That standard, much like the shelter-in-place that they ordered, remains tied to an abundance of caution that they understand can be inconvenient, but are confident will save lives.

Ultimately, campus safety will always be their top priority.

“I believe administrators in higher education are — and should be — taking every threat or potential threat seriously,” Lindner said. “We’ve all lived through experiences that prompt us to react swiftly and not brush off cases as ‘hoaxes,’ so we use our best judgment to assess the situation in each case and err on the side of caution.”

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