When the decision was made to cancel classes on Monday, November 16, 2015, the week before the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday break, Public Safety Director Gerald (Jerry) Roderick drew upon his many years of experience and planning on how to deal with a possible threat to Washington College campus in Chestertown, Maryland.
Following the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, most colleges and universities have taken significant steps to improve their preparedness for various threats and, in particular, the threat of an active shooter on campus. Although Washington College is a small liberal arts college on Maryland’s Eastern Shore with 1,500 students, it faces no less of a threat from an armed person than does a larger school. Engaging all supporting elements of a campus community is critical to ensuring that the response to such a threat is both comprehensive and coordinated.
Threat to Students
Roderick has worked at Washington College for 33 years and, 10 years earlier, helped to create the campus’s Emergency Operations Group (EOG), which is charged with ensuring the safety of students and staff during a manmade or natural threat. At that time, he knew that one of his students had left campus and returned to his parents’ house in Pennsylvania, where he had possibly acquired a firearm and then fled. Knowing that the student was distraught and facing disciplinary action at the college – and that a return to campus was possible – the decision was made to lockdown the school.
“We were very unprepared nine years ago, when we first began our training as the EOG,” said Roderick in a telephone interview on March 1, 2016. “We brought together first-line supervisors as well as senior professional staff who had previously never interacted,” he continued. With a common mission of protecting students, the EOG developed training for a group of people who are neither first responders nor knowledgeable on incident command. A good portion of the training focused on educating staff on how to make decisions on their own during a crisis. “You have to train [staff] that the key people are not always going to be in the same room, so staff has to be ready to act on their own when necessary while we [public safety staff] are actively working the threat,” noted Roderick.
During the lockdown on Monday, the EOG convened at a preplanned off-campus location where they had trained before. While Roderick worked with local law enforcement to set up a perimeter around campus, the rest of the EOG focused on keeping the students safe, fed, and supported while sheltering in place throughout the day. With the state police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation offering support, an investigative group of more than 20 people quickly came together. In addition, the media represented another group that wanted access to campus, which public safety personnel needed to restrict for the safety of the press and the students.
By the end of that day, Roderick and the EOG were transitioning to “recovery mode” and planning for the school to open normally on Tuesday while the law enforcement investigation continued – primarily off campus. “However, on Tuesday morning at 7:00 a.m., I received disturbing information that directly led to a decision the next day to close the school entirely through the Thanksgiving holiday week.” Suddenly, a typical short-term lockdown was going to stretch to more than a week and, in doing so, present new challenges to staff and students.
The decision to start the Thanksgiving break early (it was originally planned to begin the following Wednesday) alleviated the need to support the majority of the student body who were now headed home. However, international students who planned to remain on campus during the break, and others whose travel plans did not allow them to leave school a week early, were stuck. “This meant that we had at least 150 students that we had to find homes for off campus,” noted Roderick. Fortunately, the community of Chestertown, Maryland, is tight-knit, and places for the remaining students were identified quickly, including some who were taken in by college employees.
Sadly, the threat ended when the body of the student was found in Pennsylvania on Saturday, November 21, 2015. He had died from an apparent suicide. The college remained closed until the Monday after the Thanksgiving break, with essential staff working to recover from the lockdown and prepare for the reopening.
Lessons From the Lockdown
Roderick noted several takeaways following the two-week event. “We became so focused on the crisis that we were not paying enough attention to the ‘ripples’ that were affecting the surrounding community. When you have 10 police cars at every entrance to the college, it made other folks in the area very nervous,” he said. Without specific information on what the threat was, schools and businesses decided to close and even hospitals began locking their doors. “There was a big void in the messaging that was going out to our community. We have now invited the local emergency commander [in Chestertown] to join the EOG, so they have better information on what is happening on campus,” he continued.
Another lesson learned was that, “We were dealing with an incident that had multiple jurisdictions involved – local, state, and federal agencies – including multiple investigating groups, and even people from the suspect’s hometown were in lockdown,” said Roderick. “And the suspect’s hometown investigating teams were releasing information that we were not, which made it appear that we were not coordinating or even aware of certain facts. However, it was simply our local decision to not release certain information. This demonstrates the need to coordinate as much as possible on information dissemination, which can be a challenge,” he added.
Finally, Roderick noted the value of constant communication with the student body, faculty, and staff. He made sure that the college’s public information officer issued regular, nearly hourly updates posted on the college website in the first days of the lockdown, as well as through automated notification tools, such as e2Campus. This communication now includes more of the local community through the EOG.
Although Washington College ultimately received questions from the press and others who asked if the decision to close the school for such an extended period was the right one, Roderick remains unapologetic. “I can afford to lose days, but I can’t afford to lose students.”
Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso
Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso is the executive director of the Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN) Program at the University of Maryland, which provides software and mission-critical data access services to first responders in and across dozens of jurisdictions, disciplines, and levels of government. Formerly with IBM Business Consulting Services, he has more than 20 years of experience supporting large-scale implementation projects for information technology, and extensive experience in several related fields such as change management, business process reengineering, human resources, and communications.