Fifty-Four Minutes After Midnight
THE SECURITY DISPATCHER at Delaware State University in Dover, Delaware, was on the night shift. It was 54 minutes after midnight on a Friday when the call came in that gunshots had been fired on campus. Two 17-year-old students, a male and a female, were hit—the male in the ankle and the female in the abdomen. The female student was airlifted to the local trauma center but died a month later without ever having regained consciousness.
The incident, which occurred September 21, 2007, was the first major campus shooting since the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech. As a result, it drew significant media attention. Added to that was the fact that a large part of the university grounds was filled with campers who were spectators attending the NASCAR race at Dover International Speedway, which is across the street from campus. All the major news networks, in town to cover the race, quickly shifted their attention to the shooting.
Delaware State University’s 400-acre campus has 66 buildings, including eight traditional residential facilities and one apartment-style residential complex on campus. Another apartment-style complex is located less than a mile off campus. Of the 3,600 students who attend the university, approximately 2,200 live in housing on the campus grounds.
When the shooting occurred, security implemented the crisis management plan, which called for providing notice to the campus community, establishing an operating procedure, and offering counseling. The following overview looks at how well the basic plan worked and how the university subsequently addressed what had been an obvious missing link during the incident: a mass notification system.
Immediately on learning of the shootings, Chief James Overton, head of security at Delaware State University, activated the crisis management plan, which meant notifying police and alerting the crisis management team, which consisted of Overton, the vice president of the university, the provost, and a representative from the legal affairs team.
They also called in the university’s 11 sworn police officers and 11 security officers to help secure the scene and otherwise assist with the crisis. The next step was to notify students, parents, and the community at large of the shooting.
“Our first response was, of course, to secure the scene and alert students to stay indoors until we found out what was going on,” says Overton.
The timing of the shooting made notifying students easier. “This was a very unfortunate incident, but we had a couple of things on our side that helped minimize confusion,” says Overton. “Because it was the middle of the night, the only people on campus were residential students and security staff members.”
The shooting took place at a grassy area surrounded by three residential halls. Security first called the resident assistants in those halls and informed them that there had been a shooting. The assistants notified the students in their charge and kept them indoors.
The main doors to the residence halls were already locked because it was after hours. Security staff began notifying resident assistants in other residential buildings. (At the time of the shooting, the security team had been evaluating possible mass notification systems, but the university did not yet have one installed.)
Security then began investigating the incident in conjunction with Dover Police. Once the investigation was underway, security had to craft a formal, written notice, called a timely warning notice, as required under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act of 1990, also known as the Clery Act.
“The shooting happened at 12:54 [a.m.], our first notice went out at 2:01,” says Overton. Considering that the scene had to be secured and information gathered, Overton was pleased with the speed of the notice.
Security sent out three additional updates over the course of the night. The updates detailed the progress of the investigation and included safety tips for students. Even though repeated notices were more work, they were the best way to control rumors and keep the campus community informed, says Overton.
The first alert and subsequent notices went out both as e-mail messages to students and as posted information on the university’s Web site. In addition, the security team printed out hundreds of fliers and posted them in the residence halls and at off-campus university facilities.
As part of the freshman orientation process, Overton traditionally gives his personal cell phone number to parents and encourages them to call if they ever have safety concerns. Overton received more than 200 calls on his cell phone in the first 18 hours of the crisis.
To help deal with the influx of phone traffic, security set up a hotline for parents and had it staffed by security officers for the entire weekend. Officers were kept informed about the status of the investigation and were encouraged to give parents as much information as possible.
Many parents called because they could not get in touch with their children. In these cases, the officers would try to track down the missing student by contacting resident assistants, roommates, and faculty advisors.
Because the NASCAR spectators were on school property, across the street from the main campus, Overton also had to provide them with a timely warning notice. Officers went on foot through the campsite, handing out approximately 200 notices, one for each visitor or family.
The timing of the event also played a role in determining other operational issues, such as how much to limit access to the campus. Security decided to cancel classes and close the campus to visitors during the investigation.
Three of the four vehicular entrances to the campus, which were ancillary entrances—were locked down during the investigation. The main entrance was staffed with security officers and only essential university personnel were allowed on campus. Faculty and students who lived off-campus were asked to stay home.
Another issue was determining what to tell parents who wanted to come to the university to pick up their children. The crisis management team decided to ask parents to wait until 9 a.m. the next morning to pick up their children. Security told parents this when they called the hotline and also put the request up on the university Web site.
About 80 percent of parents complied. Security officers were dispatched to assist the few parents who insisted on coming right away. The next morning, state police officers came to help sign students out.
“Within hours the news was out,” says Overton. “We were inundated with media calls.” A university media relations officer, designated by the crisis management plan to speak to the press in case of an emergency, served as the point of contact. The spokesperson liaised with all agencies involved with the investigations, including the Dover Police and federal agencies that were on hand to assist with the NASCAR event.
All the interactions with the press went smoothly. The spokesperson gave frequent updates to the assembled media representatives, who were congregated across the street at the speedway.
Fortunately, with the help of law enforcement officials, the investigation progressed quickly. “We had witnesses who gave us good information, and we immediately had people of interest,” says Overton. “On Sunday, investigators identified a possible suspect and interviewed him Sunday night. We arrested him Monday morning.”
With a suspect in custody, Overton turned his attention to the campus community and set in motion a plan to deal with the aftermath of the violence.
On Monday morning, counselors began visiting residence halls, meeting with students, and encouraging them to talk. Later that day, counselors moved to an office on campus. This effort continued for months and students were urged to seek individual help if necessary.
The healing process was complicated by the fact that four students had been shot and killed off-campus just two months earlier. The random shootings, the result of a gang initiation, had shocked the university community. A memorial service for the victims had been held in August, less than a month before the on-campus shooting. Emotions were still raw.
“We were trying to recover as a community before this even happened,” says Overton.
As established in the crisis management plan, the content and frequency of the counseling was determined by experts employed by the university. (See sidebar for more on what a counseling program might entail.)
Though the security team held meetings after the incident to discuss what aspects of the response worked and what needed improvement, Overton is unable to reveal the substance of those discussions because of ongoing civil lawsuits filed against the university by the families of the victims.
However, he was able to discuss some issues. For example, in meetings with the university president after the incident, students requested more campus police. In response, the university hired seven additional officers.
Also, a month after the shooting, the university hosted a parents weekend designed to give parents and students an opportunity to discuss the shooting and bring any concerns to the attention of campus officials. Overton was invited to give a security update. Though he worried that his team might be criticized, Overton was pleasantly surprised to find that parents were satisfied with the response to the shooting, especially the timely way the officers issued notices.
Though parents were pleased with the information provided by the university, Overton says the shooting gave new urgency to the purchase of a mass notification system. In addition to being useful in an emergency, such a system would allow the campus police to provide information on less serious matters.
Overton had been looking at mass notification systems before the shooting and had ramped up the search after the Virginia Tech incident. Based on several factors, such as cost and what systems were feasible because of the university’s agreements with cell carriers, the potential systems had been narrowed from around 50 to five.
In considering the final five, Overton looked at whether the system had the capacity to make many phone calls at once but also to send those calls out in batches to avoid overburdening the university’s switchboard. The system also had to be compatible with cell phones.
Ease of registration and the ability for people to opt in and out of the system were also issues. Overton wanted a system that could be configured by the last name of each student and sent to that student’s school e-mail address. Once the students were in the system, he wanted them to be able to go in and make changes where necessary, such as to include a parent’s email address or a cell phone number.
The final issue was that the university did not have the resources to house the database of names and contacts. Any product would have to include the ability to store that information off-site, along with a backup in case of emergency. This narrowed the field considerably. Only two vendors could offer this service.
Overton invited both companies to provide demonstrations. Based on these, he chose the Instant Alert Plus system from Honeywell, headquartered in Morristown, New Jersey.
The university purchased the system in March 2008 and began establishing the many database configurations necessary to make the system effective. For example, Overton wanted to configure the database to allow for notification by groups, such as everyone in a single residence hall so that if a pipe burst in one hall, the system could be used to notify just those residents, not the entire student body.
Overton also had to work with the university to establish protocols for when the system would be activated. They decided to use it for emergencies as well as for weather-related developments, such as impending storms or university closures due to severe weather. It would also be used to notify students and faculty about other problems that would require the closure of specific buildings. Developing protocols and testing the system took two months. It was rolled out in June 2008 when incoming freshmen arrived on campus for orientation.
In the year it’s been in place, the system has been used for weather-related school closings on two occasions. The system was also used once to alert the campus to a gas leak in an administrative building.
Though the mass notification system can be used to provide timely notice under the Clery Act, Overton does not rely on it alone to meet that requirement. “We still put out a written notice as well,” he says. “It may be a single notice in each residence hall for a minor incident, but we would still go door to door in case of a shooting.”
The university hopes never to find out how its new mass notification system and increased work force will handle another shooting, but the administration at least knows that it has taken steps to be ready for the worst if it should occur.
As for the school’s reputation among parents, when security sought comments from parents about the September shooting, says Overton, “One parent stood up and said that his child was on campus at the time of the incident and that he was enrolling a second child at the university for the next semester…. This was the best endorsement I could have had of our emergency preparedness plan.”
Teresa Anderson is a senior editor at Security Management.