Seeing Threats Through a Different Lens

In wake of Virginia Tech shootings, colleges respond to wave of copycat bomb scares with extra attention.

April 20, 2007

Nell Newton saw the message Wednesday posted on a law school admissions discussion board:

Under the heading "Just decided not to do a murder-suicide copycat at Hastings Law," a Web user wrote, "I went to be all set for 'Bloody Wednesday,' but when I woke -- to sun, to flowers in bloom -- I just couldn't bring myself to suit up. Maybe tomorrow; I hear rain's in the forecast."

Any other week, the cryptic comments might have simply caused alarm and prompted an investigation. But coming two days after the brutal shooting spree in Blacksburg, Va., administrators weren't taking any chances. They canceled classes for the remainder of the day.

"When you read it, your first thought is, 'This is a sick joke,' " said Newton, chancellor and dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law. "But after Virginia Tech, how could you in good conscience do anything else?"

More than a handful of colleges have received similar violent threats since Monday, leading many to assume that the post-violent-episode copycat effect is at play. Here's a sampling of the warnings and how institutions have responded:

  • At Eastern Kentucky University's Manchester campus, an e-mailed bomb threat Wednesday  prompted administrators to cancel classes for several hours and briefly evacuate campus.  
  • A five-story residence hall at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse was evacuated for three hours on Wednesday after a worker found a written bomb threat in a bathroom.
  • University of Tennessee at Chattanooga officials responded to a phoned-in bomb threat Tuesday by evacuating three buildings, where nothing was found.
  • The Associated Press reported several other scares, including a person carrying what looked to some like a weapon at the University of Oklahoma who was questioned. (He had an umbrella, according to the article.)
  • On Wednesday, campus security officers at Lewis & Clark College, in Oregon, confiscated another suspicious-looking item -- an empty ammunition belt worn by a student before a vigil for the Virginia Tech victims. Police determined the belt to be a fashion accessory made of spent ammunition. The campus was close to a lockdown because of the incident, said Tom Krattenmaker, a college spokesman.

The Lewis & Clark case illustrates a point that many administrators underscored on Thursday: Context matters. "Everyone was on a heightened state of alert because of this week," Krattenmaker said. "Based on what an employee observed, it wasn't entirely clear what the student was doing. Everyone involved agreed that wearing such a belt isn't a good idea and is certain to cause distress."

Krattenmaker said while there was no extra cost associated with responding to the potential situation, it did exact a toll in terms of stress and time spent. A bomb threat at University of Minnesota also sapped plenty of resources: Minneapolis police, city fire fighters, county sheriffs and the Federal Bureau of Investigation all reported to the campus.

"We can't put a dollar figure on that, but then if you include our own staff, that's a lot of people who would regularly be doing other things," said David Ruth, a university spokesman.

Minnesota officials had less than two days after the Virginia Tech shooting to contemplate how they would respond to potential crisis situations. On Wednesday, after a student found the bomb threat in a bathroom, the chain of command was put to the test. The student told a professor, who told a superior, who alerted the campus police chief, who met with Minnesota's vice president for university services and at 12:45 p.m. made a joint decision to evacuate eight buildings, several of which had been named in the threat. They also decided to cancel classes for the rest of the day.

A speaker system alerted those in the classroom buildings to leave immediately, and security officials entered the halls to begin their sweep. An e-mail to all students and employees shortly followed.

"We haven't had something like happen for awhile," Ruth said. "You take every threat seriously. Our police chief said regardless of Virginia Tech, we would have done the same thing."

The University of Tennessee received a similar bomb scare on Monday, shortly after the Virginia Tech attacks. An anonymous caller warned that an explosive device was set to go off before 4 p.m. at a humanities complex.

Tom Milligan, a university spokesman who serves on Tennessee's emergency management committee, said the committee runs through disaster scenarios and has general guidelines but also relies heavily on context.

"If you set up your policy manual with codified yes, no, up, down, you're not being realistic," he said. "There was probably a question if an evacuation was needed. Some might say we acted with an overabundance of caution. In light of what happened earlier, it was best to take extra precaution."

Milligan said methods of communicating with the campus are major decisions. On Monday, more than a dozen police officers went room to room in the two buildings telling people to leave before pulling a fire alarm. An e-mail was sent to the entire campus after the buildings had re-opened; not while the investigation was taking place. Milligan said because it was an isolated threat, the chancellor's office decided that there wasn't a need to alert everyone during the building sweep.

Newton, the Hastings dean, said the law school was also concerned about putting students on edge. Because it has about 1,200 students, 400 of whom, Newton estimates, were attending class in just one building Wednesday, administrators could quickly evacuate students without using the public announcement system.

“We can absorb the fact that we were working on a lot of important projects and doing a lot of important things and sent a lot of people home,” Newton said. “But I am furious because of our students. First-year law students are near finals and it’s such a stressful time for them.

“I was here till 11 [Wednesday] night reassuring students one by one that everything had been resolved,” she added. 

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