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Dr. Kevin Manning Headshot

Lessons Learned From University Lockdown

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The afternoon of Monday, March 31, 2014, was like any other typical day at Stevenson University until 2:24 p.m. Across the campus, cell phones suddenly displayed a text alert that we have never had to send before: "active shooter on the Owings Mills campus." On office PCs and classroom computer projectors, a pop-up filled the screen with the same warning. 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 and notified 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 prepare -- and may also help other institutions prepare -- for the future.

Firstly, 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 sighting 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.

Secondly, social media and the news media are pervasive but not always accurate. We are in an age of hyper-communication, where anywhere and anytime, people can share erroneous information with thousands of others via Twitter or FB. 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 may 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.

Thirdly, institutions must take the time to review all the information they can shortly after an incident. Stevenson held a resident student 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 the week that followed our own lockdown, there was a lockdown at the KIPP Schools in nearby Baltimore City; a shooting at the Fort Hood Army installation in Texas; the arrest of an individual who threatened South Carroll High School in neighboring Carroll County, Maryland; and 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?