Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Photo: JERRYE & ROY KOLTZ M.D./Wikimedia Commons
At a time of national concern about campus safety after a recent spate of college shootings and gunmen confronted or thwarted on campuses, a lockdown two weeks ago at Lane College in Jackson, Tenn., has raised questions among some faculty and staff members about the safety of the campus and its preparedness for potential threats.
Administrators and campus security officials at the small, private, historically Black college say they took all the necessary steps to keep students and employees safe and informed after a student reported a suspicious man on campus who appeared to have a gun in his waistband.
The campus alert system sent out a text at 12:17 p.m. on Sept. 14 that announced a “campus lockdown” because of an individual in “the area of Jennie Hall possibly armed.” An all-clear message was issued at 1:40.
Steaven Joy, Lane’s campus safety and security director, said a student called campus security and reported seeing a man with a gun in his waistband on the north end of campus. Joy said he sent out the campuswide alert telling people to go into lockdown mode and called the Jackson Police Department, which sent officers to the campus. Police and campus security officers did a sweep of the campus and didn’t find the individual; they determined there was not a present threat.
This was small comfort to some Lane College employees, who say a lack of information provided about the lockdown has made them worried about campus safety. A few faculty members said they plan to bring the incident up at an upcoming faculty meeting in October.
Paul Rivas, an assistant professor of history, said he didn’t find out about the lockdown until a colleague told him almost an hour into it. The text alert made no sound, and an email alert did not go to his primary inbox. He said some newer professors reported they didn’t receive the alerts at all.
Joy sent out an email that evening noting “some concerns about not receiving the E-2 campus alert” and that an earlier email “was sent out to faculty, staff, and students to sign up again due to new software” the university was using to send alerts.
Joy said the software was updated last year because the alert system was overloaded with contacts and needed a refresh, so employees and students were asked to sign up again.
Administrators “rely on the system, and the system has issues,” Rivas said.
Rivas also didn’t know the protocol for what to do during a lockdown. He said there have been two prior lockdowns he remembers during his 10 years at the campus, which he described as being located in a “high-crime area.”
While he’s sure training is available, “I don’t recall ever being in a training about what we’re supposed to [do],” he said. “We probably need to have some focused training and discussion there to get the campus involved, like the faculty, administration and security. The security guards, they’re good guys, but it’s a fairly big campus.”
The college’s website describes the campus as being on 55 acres, and according to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, there were 1,010 students enrolled in fall 2022.
Other employees said they didn’t receive the lockdown alert or an all-clear message and heard about the lockdown during the actual incident from colleagues who had.
One employee, who asked to remain anonymous out of concerns about job security, said he signed up for the alert system during the lockdown and got no alerts after doing so, including the all-clear message. He described finding out about the lockdown only because a co-worker called to check in. The employee then scrambled to email and text students and colleagues to stay where they were and lock their doors after realizing not everyone was receiving updates.
While the college has policies for what to do in a lockdown, no follow-up message came from administrators after the incident reminding people of the protocol or informing them whether there actually had been a gunman on campus, the employee said.
Jackson Central-Merry Middle and High School, a neighbor of the college, posted on Facebook on the day of the lockdown that school officials had heard “an armed man was walking around Lane College campus,” and as a result, the school “took safety precautions and went on lockdown until it was cleared by the Jackson Police Department.”
No such messages appear on Lane’s Facebook page or X account.
The Lane employee noted there’s been little local news coverage about the incident and described the college as having a pattern of not publicizing issues that could hurt its reputation.
“They don’t want people to know about it,” the employee said. “Plain and simple … It’s putting people’s lives at risk to keep quiet about it. We had a thing that was supposed to work. It didn’t. It failed. Luckily no one got hurt, but you can’t just ignore it.”
Logan Hampton, president of the college for the past decade, said campus security did everything possible to keep people well informed during and after the lockdown. He noted that campus officials held an exercise to test the college’s preparedness for an active shooter situation in July.
“There was immediate communication to everyone on campus that all took place on that same day,” he said. “There was the email communication, and security went around our campus, and they were going person to person, building to building, communicating.”
He acknowledged that some faculty members reported not receiving the alerts, and he believes it was because they didn’t sign up. He said security personnel quickly encouraged them to do so and then reset the alert system and sent a test message later that day to make sure it was working. He added that faculty and staff members have multiple avenues to bring their concerns to him and that he has an “open-door policy.” The complaints regarding transparency around the lockdown, or in general, were news to him, he added.
“I’m a bit flabbergasted that colleagues would not feel that we are being transparent in all that we do … I don’t want them to feel like I’m not listening to them and that they are not heard,” he said.
Another professor who didn’t receive an alert and thought faculty members were automatically signed up for them said a message from security didn’t feel like enough and that a more detailed follow-up explanation from the administration was warranted.
That “at least indicates to us that they know and to some extent care, even if it’s window dressing,” said the professor, who wanted to remain anonymous out of concerns about retaliation.
“It is fucking heartbreaking to hear my students tell me they don’t feel safe on campus,” the professor added. Their academic outcomes will be affected “if they’re not even feeling safe.”
A student, who asked not to be identified, learned that the campus was on lockdown from dorm mates who found out from other students.
“Most cases or lockdowns we have on campus are not notified instantly when a situation happens,” the student said in a text message. “If there is an email sent out, it will be brief and to let students know that the school is on lockdown.”
The student described feeling “concerned” and said other classmates are, too. The student spoke to campus security after the lockdown but felt those concerns were “disregarded.”
“I was more concerned for the younger students on campus,” the student said. “Our campus is very open to the general public and there are always local people walking onto our campus. A lot of times there are people that consistently drive through our campus.”
Another student, who also wanted to remain anonymous, said the campus could use more security personnel, but the lockdown didn’t worry her. The student hadn’t signed up for alerts and didn’t receive them but heard about the lockdown from friends in a group chat.
“I have complete faith in Chief Joy and the security staff,” the student said.
Rivas, the history professor, said he’s a fan of Hampton—Hampton officiated Rivas’s wedding on campus last year—and described Hampton as a leader open to feedback who has helped the college build stronger ties with its surrounding community.
“Lane College has a difficult job and mission,” he wrote in an email. “I do not agree with all of our policies, I am jokingly called the campus revolutionary. That said, I would have left if President Hampton had moved on. I joke in meetings I like being a revolutionary and pointing out what’s wrong, it is easier than fixing.”
Robert Mueck, a member of the domestic preparedness committee at the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and associate director of public safety at Montgomery Community College in Maryland, said these kinds of communication problems during campus lockdowns are all too common.
He said text alert systems tend to send messages in batches, so not everyone receives them at the same time. He said students often look to faculty members for what to do during a lockdown, but those faculty members, caught up in teaching and research, rarely attend voluntary lockdown trainings offered by campus public safety personnel.
“That’s a challenge for everyone in higher education public safety,” he said.
Mueck said Montgomery Community College has a system where in addition to text messages and emails, all desktop computer screens on campus freeze and display a banner message about a lockdown. But he also noted that not all campuses have the resources to put in place the most robust security systems, and HBCUs like Lane tend to be underresourced.
He empathizes with Lane but also noted the importance of following up with students and employees after a security scare.
“You’ve got a campus community clamoring for information,” he said. And in the absence of a clear message, students and staff members tend to be “still kind of unsatisfied. So, you’ve got to be willing to step up and explain that … There should be some kind of communication that gives you a basic understanding [that] we had this incident, it was resolved—something that clarifies in the aftermath.”