Pamela Smith/The Pitt News
University of Pittsburgh sophomore Zach Shafer was working on his thermodynamics homework late on the evening of April 10 when police suddenly swarmed the Hillman Library and ordered students to evacuate.
Shafer, sitting in view of the library’s front doors, was one of the first students out, leaving behind his laptop, textbooks and headphones—everything but his phone.
“It was basically a stampede towards the entrance,” he said.
He didn’t know it at the time, but the city of Pittsburgh police had received three calls about a shooting at the library—calls with the sound of gunshots playing in the background.
Shafer stood outside the building while police searched for any sign of danger; he had friends studying on the fourth floor and wanted to see if they were OK. While awaiting additional information, he walked to a friend’s dorm, where he and his peers scrolled through Twitter and Reddit and listened to the police scanner to try to figure out what was going on.
Some posts said that the shooting was real due to the sound of the gunshots, Shafer recalled; later it became clear that police officers had fired shots to get through a locked door in the library.
“When you see police run into a building armed with assault rifles, you’re going to make the assumption there’s a shooting, especially in today’s world,” he recalled. “So, that is the assumption we all made.”
Officers discovered there was no shooting; the calls had been a hoax, part of a phenomenon known as swatting, in which phony threats are made in an attempt to elicit a SWAT team response. Numerous universities across the country dealt with swatting attacks in March and April.
But details of the incident took a while to reach students. Administrators didn’t send a message right away explaining why police had evacuated the library—not even once they determined there was no genuine risk—because another threat was called in shortly after. The University of Pittsburgh’s police chief, Jim Loftus, said he believes the second call came from students who were genuinely afraid a shooter was in their dorm building.
Shafer and his friends found out the library threat was false from a tweet by a Pittsburgh city government agency before any notification came from the university.
Officials finally sent out an alert via phone and email at 12:36 a.m., nearly 90 minutes after the swatting call; due to technical issues, the text message alert didn’t actually reach students until about 14 minutes later.
“Pitt E.N.S. Alert: Police responded to multiple locations for reports of an active shooter. Calls were determined to be unfounded and false,” it read.
To many Pitt students, the wait for that notification was excruciating. If the threat had been real, they argue, they wouldn’t have had the information necessary to protect themselves.
“In an ideal world, as soon as cops are called to the building for a potential shooting, we get an alert saying, ‘Potentially dangerous activity around Hillman Library, please avoid the area,’” Shafer said. “As soon as it’s determined it’s a hoax, I’d like to know that it’s a hoax.”
When to Notify?
Universities are required to send a “timely warning” to students when there is a serious or ongoing threat on campus, according to the Clery Act, a federal law that requires institutions to disclose information about crime on campus.
However, the law does not detail how soon after the university becomes aware of a threat it is required to put out a notification. Nor does it explicitly account for the possibility that the threat might be a hoax.
This can make communications during swatting situations—and other campus threats—complicated for universities. Officials don’t want to alarm students if the threat isn’t real, but they also don’t want to delay notification in the event that it is.
At a press conference on April 11, Pitt police chief Loftus said his goal is to communicate with the student body as promptly as possible—but not before he’s sure whether a threat is viable.
“We have a clock running in our head that we want to get this out as soon as possible, because we owe it to everybody,” Loftus said. “I have kids who go to school here. I owe it to them, besides everybody else.”
William Pelfrey Jr., a professor of criminal justice, homeland security and emergency preparedness at Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied emergency notification systems, said if there is even a shred of possibility that a threat is real, the university should notify students—ideally within a matter of minutes.
If it seems unlikely that the threat is legitimate—if, say, it comes from a single call containing vague information that can’t be corroborated through security camera footage—the messaging can reflect that, he said.
“On the continuum of emergency alerts, there’s a range of options, and those can be extreme—‘shooting in progress at this location, shelter in place.’ That’s kind of the most extreme. All the way down to, ‘There’s a claim of a shooting in this vicinity, not yet verified, take steps, contact the agency if you have information on this issue,’” said Pelfrey.
Hoax emergencies are just one example of how a changing world is driving the way universities communicate with students. During the COVID-19 pandemic, anxious students and their families sought a steady stream of information from institutions about closures, reopenings, viral spread on campus and safety protocols, said higher education communications expert Teresa Valerio Parrot, principal at TVP Communications (and an occasional contributor to Inside Higher Ed).
Since then, students have maintained a high demand for transparency regarding what’s going on behind the scenes.
“Institutions are walking this fine line between ‘want to know’ and ‘need to know’ in terms of how they operate and the decisions they make,” she said.
Universities sometimes miss the mark in imagining what students want to hear following an emergency, added Valerio Parrot. Rather than send out an email simply reiterating what happened during the event, officials should follow up with communications that add context and details about how the university is reacting to the situation; that way, students won’t turn to other sources and potentially run into misinformation.
Pitt plans to improve its emergency notifications should another swatting attack occur in the future, Loftus said, adding that the university would send out “interim messaging”—notifications that indicate police are in the middle of investigating a situation that may or may not be dangerous.
Such messages might read something like, “Unconfirmed active shooter at (location). Police are responding. Please avoid the area. For more information visit www.emergency.pitt.edu,” according to Pitt spokesperson Jared Stonesifer.
In a message sent to students after the April 10 incident, Pitt chancellor Patrick Gallagher said the university would revisit its emergency messaging protocols to better balance promptness with accuracy.
He also noted that educating students on the possibility of hoax shooter threats was important to avoiding miscommunications in the future.
“Knowing how to get information, take prudent steps to minimize risks to ourselves and those around us, and avoid the dangers of an active law enforcement response is part of our new reality,” the message read. “We must broaden our emergency preparedness program, including training, to provide clearer guidance against these twin threats (a potential active killer situation and a targeted disinformation attack).”
Clemson University in South Carolina faced similar scrutiny following a swatting attack on the evening of April 6. After a call came in reporting two individuals carrying rifles near the university’s Cooper Library, the Clemson University Police Department promptly sent two officers to the scene.
By talking to students and surveying the library and surrounding area, however, the officers quickly realized there was no legitimate threat.
“Due to the quick arrival of officers and recognition that no threat existed, a determination was made that a safe alert was not needed and could create unnecessary panic, so one was not issued,” read a message sent the next day by Gregory G. Mullen, Clemson’s associate vice president for public safety and chief of police.
A caller then reported a threat in a nearby dorm building, which also turned out to be false. About 40 minutes after the first call came in, Clemson police sent out alerts to explain the heavy presence of officers in and around the library.
Unlike at Pitt, the library was never evacuated, so some students didn’t learn of the swatting incident until they got the false-alarm alert. Emma Vick, a sophomore and the news editor of the student newspaper, The Tiger, said she and her friends were shaken by the message, even though it gave them the all clear, because they didn’t know whether to trust it.
“I was studying with a few of my friends, and we all got the CU Safe alert on our phones. As soon as we saw it, we all looked at each other and tried not to panic,” she said. “It was especially scary because we would not be able to get out of the library easily since the steps were the fastest way, and we were three floors down, and we contemplated packing our stuff up and trying to get out of there as soon as possible.”
As at Pitt, students criticized the university for its delayed messaging. Madison Akers, The Tiger’s assistant outlook editor, published an editorial chastising the university for waiting to send out the message until after the all clear. It focused on the harm that could have been done if the shooting had turned out to be legitimate, citing shootings in which numerous victims were killed in far less than the 40 minutes it took CUPD to alert the student body.
“Since shootings happen so often in schools, I think if you have any amount of uncertainty that it’s unsafe or that there is an active shooter, students need to be notified of that,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “What about that one case scenario where they think this isn’t an actual scenario and then it turns out it actually is?”
Clemson has said little about how, if at all, it will address student concerns surrounding the incident. A spokesperson for the institution did not respond to a list of questions sent by Inside Higher Ed.
Students’ desire to know when there is a threat on campus—even if it doesn’t seem credible—seems to stem from the idea that it’s far better to receive an alarming notification and briefly panic than it is to be unprepared for a truly dangerous situation.
Shafer was one of several students who hosted a “die-in” to protest Pitt’s lack of communication during the April 10 swatting attack. During the event, students lay on the ground pretending to be dead for 82 minutes—the length of time the campus police went without sending an alert that night.
“I think they shouldn’t wait until they have all the information. I think hearing shots fired into the building is going to spur more panic than hearing ‘potentially dangerous situation, avoid the area’” in an emergency notification, he said.
Akers echoed his sentiment.
“I’d rather cause panic and it be a false alarm than vice versa,” she said.
Valerio Parrot, the university communications expert, noted that many administrators don’t know what it feels like to grow up in a world where mass violence is so prevalent, which may explain the disconnect between the style and degree of communication they are comfortable with during an emergency and the extreme transparency that students prefer.
“Traditional-aged students have grown up in an environment in which campus shootings and public mass shootings have always been a part of their life,” she said. “So, there’s a reality that these students have expectations for safety and concerns for safety that would be different, perhaps, then experience that the administrators’ generation had.”
Officials at Pitt understand why students were frustrated with their messaging throughout the incident.
“We heard clearly that our community wants faster, more frequent information, even if we don’t have a complete picture to share,” Vice Chancellor for Public Safety and Emergency Management Ted Fritz told Inside Higher Ed in an emailed statement. “The University remains committed to learning from these experiences and making whatever changes necessary over the long term—while also exploring immediate fixes—to ensure the right information is available to our community.”