Lessons learned from an unplanned lockdown [Commentary]

The afternoon of Monday, March 31st was a typical day at Stevenson University until 2:24 p.m., when cell phones across campus suddenly displayed a text alert that we have never had to send before: "Active shooter on the Owings Mills campus." The same warning popped up on office PCs and classroom computer projectors.

Students, faculty and staff locked doors, piled desks and chairs to create barricades and hid under desks and in closets to protect themselves wherever they were on campus. Within seconds, Baltimore County Police and SWAT teams — later followed by representatives from University of Maryland's police and the FBI — swarmed the campus to assess, investigate and secure the site.

Fortunately, our nearly three-hour lockdown ended without incident. Two individuals seen with a weapon in the woods next to our Owings Mills campus turned out to be students hunting with pellet rifles. The student who saw them did the right thing in notifying our security office.

This was Stevenson's first lockdown and shelter-in-place incident. I say first with the sincere hope that it will be our last but with the understanding that we can never afford to make that assumption. I think that I can speak for all in our campus community — students, families, faculty and staff — when I say that it was a sobering experience that woke us all up to the contemporary world in which we live. There are some lessons from this event that will help us, and possibly other institutions, prepare for the future.

One: Campus safety begins long before an emergency alert is sent. At Stevenson, we emphasize "see something, say something" to our students as well as our faculty and staff because we know that more than ever before we all must be alert to our surroundings and to potential threats. This does not just apply to spotting someone with a gun, this applies to other situations as well — such as the erratic behavior of a troubled student — where intervention by professionally trained security, wellness and counseling and resident life staff can head off trouble and help keep students safe.

Two: Social media and the news media are pervasive but not always accurate. We are in an age of hypercommunication, where anywhere and any time people can share erroneous information with thousands of others via Twitter or Facebook. Official text alerts and web posts from the university are there to help keep people safe while law enforcement professionals investigate and secure a scene. We all might be tempted to share or retweet the latest "fact" or rumor that we hear, but that information is often unfounded. This can cause unnecessary panic and people to act in a way that could put themselves and others at greater risk.

Three: Institutions must take the time to review all the information they can shortly after an incident. Stevenson held a student residence life meeting the evening of our lockdown, not only to allow students to vent their stress, anxiety and upset but to listen to their ideas as to how we can do better in the future. This information, along with input from law enforcement, will be used by our ongoing Emergency Preparedness Committee to discuss what worked, what didn't and how we can modify our responses.

Lastly, we can ask ourselves if we in any way overreacted, but I do not know if we really have the luxury to do so after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary and so many other tragedies nationwide. Our first lockdown was in essence an unplanned dry-run. Yes, there was no "real" gunman, and no one was harmed, but we are not going to take those facts as signs of success. Within the space of that five-day work week, there was a lockdown at the KIPP Schools in Baltimore; a shooting at the Fort Hood Army installation in Texas; the arrest of an individual who threatened South Carroll High School in Carroll County; and — as a I write this sentence — a mass stabbing attack by a student at a Pittsburgh-area high school.

"Lockdown" and "shelter-in-place" are no longer just police jargon or the shorthand of journalists. They are now everyday words for all school administrators and students everywhere. I think the question we must continually ask ourselves is in the context of all my points that I shared above: Did we react in such a way to anticipate, identify, investigate and eliminate a potential threat to our campus and do what was necessary to keep people safe?

Kevin J. Manning has served as president of Stevenson University since 2000 and has more than 40 years of experience as an administrator in higher education. He is the current board chair for the Maryland Independent Colleges and Universities Association (MICUA). His email is kmanning@stevenson.edu.

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