On the second to last day of the 2015 spring semester, Eliyahu Stern, a professor of Jewish history at Yale, planned to give a lecture about Jewish women. He was tired, juggling preparations for a trip to London the following week as he helped students with their final papers. That day his students seemed quiet, ready for the semester to end. A few minutes after Stern started lecturing, a man opened the door to the classroom. Dressed in jeans and an oversized T-shirt, he lingered just inside the doorframe. “Can I help you?” Stern asked. It was Bulldog Days, when admitted students and their parents visit Yale, so Stern assumed the man was a confused father. But the man didn’t answer for a long time. His gaze shifted from Stern to the students. The stranger had the build of a wrestler, and he eyed the classroom as a fighter might eye an adversary. He towered over the 20 seated students.
Stern asked again, and this time the man responded. He said he was looking for the bathroom. Stern directed him down the hall and shut the door.
Stern — who stands five-foot-six on a good day and typically pairs a tweed blazer with horn-rimmed glasses — has the confidence of a seasoned academic who can command attention when he speaks. After the man left the room, Stern immediately closed the door. He returned to his lecture, but the man came back. This time, he refused to leave.
Stern stayed calm. The man never gave his name. He insisted that he would stay in the room. He stood at the front of the class, near the screen that showed Stern’s PowerPoint presentation, and did not move. No one spoke for fear of provoking him.
A few minutes later, the man turned and left the classroom without a word. Stern approached the first row of students. “If he comes back again,” Stern told the woman closest to the door, “go outside and call Yale Police.” Stern finished his lecture without another intrusion; afterward, he dialed Yale Police himself.
Officers arrived minutes later. That incident was not a first for them: The man who disrupted Stern’s lecture often disturbed Yale classes, and, in fact, police officers had barred him from campus. “I was very scared that day,” Stern acknowledged in a conversation a year and a half later. “As a teacher, I was responsible for the well-being of the class. I had to guarantee everyone’s safety.”
After a senior at Virginia Tech shot two people dead in a dorm room and then 30 more (plus another 17 who survived) in an academic building on April 16, 2007, institutions of higher education in America and around the world were left reeling. Virginia Tech police had quickly found the two dead students in the dorm room, but the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, was just getting started. Over the next two and a half hours he managed to return to his room to change into clean clothes, mail a package with a diatribe about the impending massacre to NBC News in New York, barricade Norris Hall, and shoot people in several classrooms before police responded. When they entered Norris Hall, Cho turned his gun on himself. Police officers found him dead on the floor of a French classroom, surrounded by the bodies of his victims. College and university officials across America asked themselves: Would we be prepared if this happened at our institution?
At most schools, including Yale, the answer was no. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, had caused Yale to reconsider its emergency planning, but it was not until the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 that Yale found it necessary to consolidate all aspects of crisis preparation in the Office of Emergency Management to oversee emergency preparedness and response. The Office addresses the threat of a school shooting and countless other threats.
With the 2008 hiring of Maria Bouffard as University director of emergency management, Yale made clear its commitment to preparing for any crisis. Bouffard’s experience is exhaustive. She organized the Houston Astrodome as a shelter for people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. She ran a respite center for emergency responders at ground zero after the attacks on the World Trade Center. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, she served on the incident management team that kept track of incoming police and emergency personnel.
Bouffard wants to guarantee that the University and thousands of students, faculty and staff will be prepared to respond to any emergency. Her purview includes natural disasters; technological problems, like data breaches and power outages; physical threats, such as fires; and human threats, most notably active shooters. “[After Virginia Tech], the light bulb went off: Universities need to care about this. Universities have huge populations. Students live here,” Bouffard explained. She emphasized that students want to feel the same safety at Yale that they do at home.
Part of Bouffard’s work includes making sure professors and students know how to respond to potentially dangerous situations, such as the one Stern faced. “I’m an evangelist when it comes to this stuff,” Bouffard said. She is a crusader for the cause of emergency management, urging everyone in the Yale community to go to the Office of Emergency Management website and view its wealth of resources about how to prepare for crises. But Bouffard cannot require the Yale community to adopt her ethos of anxiety.
“Some content may be disturbing”
Last December, Yale’s Office of Emergency Management released an eight-minute video about taking action in an active-shooter situation. The fictional video begins with three students working on their laptops in Yale’s Hall of Graduate Studies. After hearing gunshots and loud screams, two of the students go to investigate. A man shoots them. The third student, who is listening to loud music, does not hear the shots. From this student’s vantage, viewers see a man approach and fire a gun at the camera before the scene fades out. A police officer seated at a desk appears. “This isn’t something that you’d like to think about,” he says, “but nowadays, a mass shooting or a killing spree or an active-shooter situation like this happens far too frequently.” The officer urges viewers to make a plan.
The rest of the video shows different scenarios the viewer might be in during a campus lockdown. A professor silently hides under her desk in a dark office. Two students huddle outside the Hall of Graduate Studies while they call the police. Students in a lab lock the buildings’ doors after receiving Yale alert messages. A student is trapped outside when the lockdown is issued, and the officer in the video simply says to “trust your judgment” and find safety. The officer concludes the video with an easy-to-remember mantra: “Plan. Evaluate. Respond.”
According to Bouffard, the video received over 15,000 views in the 11 months after she and Ronnell Higgins, Yale director of public safety and chief of police, released it to the Yale community in a campuswide email almost a year ago. But of 13 Yale students interviewed about campus security procedures, only two had seen it. Maddie Colbert ’18 recalled feeling afraid when a crazed man “threw the door open and ran in” during an event she attended on campus. “In that moment, I thought, ‘I’ve never been trained to think about this,’” Colbert said. Sarah Armstrong ’18 remembered that her high school conducted school-shooting drills. Colbert had a similar experience in high school, but wondered, “What do we do [at Yale]?” Neither student saw the video or knew about emergency preparedness guidelines available online.
“[A shooting] is something everyone has feared, and it is taboo—it is not spoken of,” said Omar El-Hely ’17, a senior who saw the video. “Most people want to be informed in that situation,” El-Hely continued, but he said the video did not help him formulate a plan. Becca Bakal ’16 SPH ’17 found the video “traumatizing.”
Janet Lindner, the video’s executive producer and Yale’s deputy vice president for human resources and administration, oversees Yale Public Safety — a combination of Yale Police and Yale Security. Lindner said the decision to create the video came after the Sandy Hook shooting, where a man entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and shot and killed 20 six- and seven-year old students and six staff members. “Certainly Sandy Hook shook all of us in a way we hadn’t felt before,” Lindner recalled, but shared that she created the video due to the increasing frequency of school shootings overall. “There is a level of fear from just that term [active shooter],” Lindner said. The video begins with a disclaimer: “Some content may be disturbing. It is intended as a learning tool.”
The Office of Emergency Management website includes a page on classroom preparedness, which has guidelines for professors and teaching assistants on how to create a safe and well-prepared classroom environment. This page had just 824 views between December 2015 and Nov. 11, 2016. Its guidelines are succinct, and for the most part, seem obvious: have a list of all students in the class; evacuate during fire alarms; identify a meeting location for the class in case there is an evacuation; identify emergency exits at the start of the semester. But of the 13 students — from all undergraduate classes and three different graduate schools — interviewed about their knowledge of emergency preparedness at Yale, not one recalled a professor ever discussing emergency plans. “I have never heard a professor say those things or had it explained to me as a teaching assistant,” said Lee Follis GRD ’21.
Interviews with 10 Yale professors, who have been at Yale from three to 48 years, reveal that most professors have no idea that Yale issues guidelines about classroom safety. Only one — William Summers, a History of Science and Medicine professor who sits on the University Safety Committee — has ever discussed safety procedures with students. “I definitely did not realize that I’m supposed to be informing students of these guidelines,” said Laura Barraclough, a professor of American Studies. Glenda Gilmore, a history professor who is about to retire after 22 years at Yale, agreed. “There has been no required training for professors,” Gilmore recalled. “I didn’t know that we had to make an emergency plan for each class at the start of each term. They should notify us of this.” Only two of the professors had viewed the classroom preparedness guidelines, but even they were unaware that they should inform students of security procedures.
When asked about the fact that professors are not following the guidelines she created, Bouffard pivoted to discuss new initiatives in her office. She also added that elementary, middle and high schools do drills and evacuation planning, so “this isn’t a foreign thing [to Yale students].”
Stern, the history professor whose lecture was interrupted, did see the active-shooter video. But he did not necessarily find it helpful. “This” — a suspicious classroom visitor — “is more complicated than a shooter. I didn’t know if it was a threat,” he said. The video offered no guidelines on assessing threats besides the obvious: a man pointing a gun at you. But Stern dreaded the anxiety that stems from schools’ constant focus on threats. “In retrospect, people always say we should’ve had more [security],” he continued. “At the cost of what? What kind of anxieties does this point to, real or imagined? I am not interested in living in a society that is constantly preparing.”
“A facade of safety”
Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school safety organization based in Macon, Georgia, helps schools prepare for crises. Executive Director Michael Dorn and his team conduct campus safety assessments by reporting on every aspect of schools’ security systems and how they can be improved. Dorn also leads crisis simulations, in which teachers and administrators are evaluated based on how well they respond to a staged crisis. “We look for [if] they miss life-saving action steps that need to happen real fast,” Dorn explained.
Since the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, Safe Havens International has run 7,000 crisis simulations in 40 states, according to Dorn. The results have been startling. “There has been a noticeable decrease in performance since Sandy Hook,” he said. At the crisis simulations, test subjects must confront six scenarios, each of which has four or five “action steps” — such as calling the police, issuing a lockdown, sending an alert — that should be taken. Before Sandy Hook, Dorn said, the subjects would miss about one step per scenario on average. Now, they miss 1.7 steps on average. He suggested that this shift is a product of the intense emotion that now accompanies school shootings. Because of “fear-based approaches and bad media coverage,” he said, the success of Safe Havens International’s data-driven approach is limited when it comes to preparing for active shooters.
A growing consensus among emergency management experts indicates that added security measures and more frequent training exercises do not necessarily correlate with safer outcomes. A report commissioned by Safe Havens International, drawing on data from sources including the National Center for Education Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration, shows that active-shooter situations represent a minor fraction of fatalities at elementary and secondary schools. Most fatalities come from traffic incidents or other accidents, but the emotion that follows an event like Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook makes school shootings stand out.
Following the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, Connecticut legislators immediately moved to address gaps in school safety. In April 2013, Gov. Dannel Malloy signed Public Act 13–3, An Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety. It established a council to create state-approved School Safety Infrastructure Standards for the state’s public elementary and secondary schools. The council’s report, released in May 2013, grapples with the same questions that Michael Dorn, Maria Bouffard and other experts on school safety face every day. “Despite the urgency of achieving school security goals, the [council] has recognized, from its inception, the need to preserve an educational environment that maintains an open, welcoming and supportive place for teaching and learning,” the report’s introduction says. The report later examines several “school building safety infrastructure areas” to be improved. Many of these, such as ballistic glass, solid-core doors, locking systems and security cameras, seem better suited for prison or army barracks.
The new Sandy Hook Elementary School — a $50 million, 86,800-square-foot project funded by the state — opened this fall. (After the shooting, Sandy Hook Elementary relocated to Monroe, Connecticut, a nearby town.) Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., tweeted pictures of the school in late July with the caption “This town deserves this palace.” With its oak paneling and stained glass windows, the enormous complex looks more like a contemporary art gallery than a school — a very safe art gallery. The New York Times reported that security features include doors that can be locked from the inside or outside, bulletproof windows and reinforced interior walls. According to the website of the building’s architects, Svigals + Partners, “the educational mission remained the primary goal,” so the new security features are not plainly visible or frightening for students. “This is exactly what we mean by the balance between safety and a regular school environment,” said J.P. Sredzinski, a state representative from Monroe whose district includes the area around Sandy Hook.
Safe Havens International works primarily with elementary and secondary schools. Dorn, who also served as a police lieutenant at Mercer University in Georgia for 10 years, cautioned that more expansive security measures might not actually work at a place like Yale. “The concept for a K-12 school won’t be remotely effective at a university,” Dorn said. “There is a facade of safety where it ends up being a feel-good measure. Then someone will get hurt, and the question is, why did you do all this stuff?”
Last October, Temple University freshman Alyssa Mancuso set out to examine whether the school’s security measures actually worked. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in October that Mancuso successfully walked into nine campus buildings — all of which employed full-time security guards to ensure that only Temple students could enter — by showing a Target gift card instead of her student ID card. Mancuso published a post on student news site The Tab that she “started to notice some inconsistencies with Temple’s ID card policy,” which led her to “do a little experiment to see how safe and secure our buildings actually are.” In conclusion, she wrote, “I’m not feeling very secure.”
At Yale, most buildings besides student dormitories are public spaces without visible security. Certain Yale office buildings, such as the Office of Career Strategy and the Office of Development, do employ security guards, but these guards rarely inspect incoming visitors.
Because the University wants to strike a balance between an open, inviting atmosphere and a feeling of security, its ability to implement certain security measures is limited. “Our basic premise is that we want Yale to be an open campus,” said Lindner, who oversees Yale public safety. In the 1990s, she recalled, former Yale President Richard Levin and former New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. made a decision to cooperate on issues relating to downtown development and Yale’s role in the city. “We try really hard to be part of downtown. If you go on campus, museums, libraries and most of the classes are open. There was a shared understanding that our futures are intertwined,” Lindner explained. As a result, access to most Yale buildings is open to members of the New Haven community.
“It’s a different world now”
After the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, then-Virginia governor Tim Kaine convened a review panel to examine the leadup to the shooting, to investigate how the incident was handled and to scrutinize mental health services and privacy laws in the state and at the university. The result was a 260-page report, which recounted the attack in agonizing detail and spotlighted the inadequacies of Virginia Tech’s security infrastructure. Lindner cited this report as a guidebook for her work and for university administrators nationwide.
In fact, several of Yale’s security measures can be traced almost directly to recommendations in the Virginia review panel’s report. Yale turned Virginia Tech’s security failure into a guide for how to close the gaps in its own security systems. Virginia Tech police “erred in not requesting that the [university emergency] Policy Group issue a campuswide notification that two persons had been killed and that all students and staff should be cautious and alert,” the report states. Yale, in turn, uses the Yale Alert system — which sends emails, text messages and voicemail messages to thousands of people at Yale and in New Haven — even for uncertain threats. In 2013, for instance, Yale’s campus was on lockdown for several hours after Yale Police received a call that there was a man with a gun on campus. It was later determined to be a hoax, but updated Yale Alert messages were sent over the course of several hours. The Virginia report also states, “[the university] fell short in helping families and others for two reasons: lack of leadership and lack of coordination among service providers.” It was just over a year after this botched response that Yale hired Bouffard to be the single person in charge of coordinating emergency response at Yale.
Yet even if more security would have been beneficial, the Virginia Tech community might not have welcomed more “intrusion on university life,” the report warns. One example is security cameras, which the report claims could have helped police identify the shooter faster. But the report does not require that Virginia Tech install security cameras. Instead, it lets administrators weigh the costs of increased security. And besides, for a shooter as determined as Seung-Hui Cho — who used chains to barricade Norris Hall, where he shot 47 people in just 11 minutes — preventive measures like security cameras might not have stopped the massacre.
If an active-shooter situation does occur at Yale, the students, faculty and staff directly confronting the perpetrator will have to figure out how to get to safety. Bouffard and Lindner’s preparations will hardly matter if victims freeze instead of evacuating or locking a door. “I do firmly believe that we need to change the culture,” said James Paturas, director of Yale New Haven Health System Center for Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Response. “I think where we need to be more diligent as an organization and a country is with our regular rank and file folks. It’s a different world now. You need to be thinking more about emergency preparedness.”
Of course, fear motivated Sandy Hook’s multimillion dollar investment in security and emergency preparation. A report conducted by Safe Havens International found that in the U.S., between 1998 and 2008, 385 people were killed in transportation-related accidents, while between 1998 and 2012 just 62 people were killed in active-shooter situations at schools. School shootings might be rare, but they are remarkably traumatic. It is tempting to succumb to the emotions stirred by random mass shootings and invest in more security, but no security system will guarantee that a school will forever be safe from a person intent on doing harm.
Bouffard accepted that emotion can be an important motivator for change. She always considers how mass casualty shootings might play out at Yale. After the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June, Bouffard met with representatives from Yale’s School of Drama to discuss security measures at campus theaters, which have similar lighting to nightclubs. “I think of how to use the environment to aid the reaction to an active shooter,” Bouffard explained.
For career emergency managers like Bouffard and Paturas, the work can get exhausting. “I haven’t built a bunker — I’m not that crazy,” Paturas joked, but he does apply the preparedness mindset to his daily life. He parks his car facing outward so he can always leave quickly. He checks for exits and fire extinguishers at hotels. Paturas has been in the business for almost four decades — he met his wife when she was an emergency department nurse — and he said he chooses to integrate his work with the rest of his life. Bouffard readily acknowledged the reality of the emotional trauma that comes with the job. “You know you need to get the work done, so you just do. You work through it, but you absorb some,” she admitted.
Most people do not live with the relentless anxiety that plagues Bouffard and Paturas. Both of them — and surely most people in the school safety field — want the rest of us to be more aware of our surroundings and more prepared for possible attacks. But people don’t like to think about threats. Whenever a Yale Alert is sent out, it contains a link to Yale’s emergency preparedness guidelines. Most people never open the link — this is the page with fewer than 900 views in the entire past year — perhaps because they assume Yale’s security apparatus is so good that this University will never face an attack like the Virginia Tech massacre. It’s easier to believe that it can’t happen here.
But it can.
That possibility looms over every decision made by Bouffard, her staff at the Office of Emergency Management, the Yale Police Department and countless administrative officers. Instead of visibly increasing security infrastructure, Yale has chosen to foster an open, inclusive atmosphere that its students and staff enjoy. But almost certainly, if the unspeakable does happen here, people who appreciated Yale’s freedom and public space will demand to know why Yale did not have better security.