Campus alerted after shot fired

The Baltimore Sun

EMMITSBURG -Emma Schmidt and Rachel Weschler were sitting in philosophy class yesterday morning at Mount St. Mary's University when they received a string of ominous voice and text messages on their cell phones.

The first was an automated voice message from the university urging students to "find a safe place and stay put." Next came a text message from the school that brought one classmate to tears, they said.

"It read, 'Shots fired in Sheridan Hall,' " recalled Schmidt, 19, a sophomore from Mount Airy. "We all started getting very nervous."

The students, who said their thoughts flashed to the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007, immediately locked the door.

"We were thinking the worst," said Weschler, 19, a sophomore from St. Mary's County who kept her classmates apprised of news reports and e-mail updates on her laptop.

The alerts came after a student at the private Catholic school reported finding a bullet lodged in the window of her third-floor dormitory room. The report came in about 10:30 a.m., and Mount St. Mary's officials ordered the school of about 2,100 students locked down while campus police and county sheriff's deputies investigated.

Police said the bullet was from a 9 mm handgun, but they had not yet determined when the shot was fired or whether it was intentional. The bullet hit a double-paned window in Sheridan Hall, shattering the first pane and cracking the second, police said. No one was injured.

"We don't know exactly how far, but it is possible that the bullet was fired from a handgun off campus," said Cpl. Jennifer Bailey, a spokeswoman for the Frederick County Sheriff's Office. "The way the bullet hit the window, the evidence technicians are saying that the bullet came from a long ways away."

The campus of the 204-year-old school is on U.S. 15 in rural Frederick County, not far from the Pennsylvania border.

Yesterday morning, the school's Web site reported the discovery of the bullet and instructed students to "shelter in place" until an all-clear message was sent.

After a couple of hours, the lockdown was lifted. In the afternoon, the school's president, Thomas H. Powell, held an assembly and declared the campus safe.

"Everything is back to normal. Everyone is assuming their regular routines," Powell said shortly before addressing about 300 students and staff in Knott Auditorium. "From my perspective, it all went right."

Powell said the university sent more than a half-dozen text notifications to students' cell phones throughout the day, each with an updated message as the situation developed.

Last night at 10:18, the university issued a fresh campuswide alert after reports of possible gunshots in the east campus area. The campus was in lockdown as sheriff's deputies conducted a sweep. At 10:55 p.m., a message from Powell was posted, saying that the lockdown remained in effect.

"There were gunshots heard in the vicinity of east campus; there is no confirmation of it," said Mount St. Mary's spokeswoman Fawn O'Hara. "Because of this morning's incident, we're just being very cautious."

The university, like many schools across the country, revamped emergency-preparedness protocols after shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois universities.

Mount St. Mary's requires all students to submit contact information so they can be reached via phone, text message or e-mail in case of an emergency. A year ago, the university purchased a public address system that was used yesterday. Powell said university officials plan to look into reports that some students could not hear alerts yesterday.

As of 4 p.m. yesterday, the unidentified student whose dorm window was hit by the bullet remained on campus and was being comforted by a family member, according to police.

Traci Tufano, 19, a sophomore from Germantown whose room is on the second floor in Sheridan Hall, had received several calls and text messages from the school, friends and family telling her to stay away from her windows.

She spent the morning on the floor of her dorm room.

By late yesterday, Tufano and her friends turned to thinking of ways to put the day's events behind them.

Schmidt, on the other hand, was not ready to let down her guard. There had been no determination of whether the shooting was an accident, she said. "That's what scares me. I don't know for sure."

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