If you’re on Northwestern University’s campus during the summer, you might pass a university building – Norris, for example, or a residential hall – roped off with yellow caution tape, surrounded by police. In all likelihood, however, police aren’t responding to an actual emergency. Rather, they are preparing for a potential one: an active shooter on campus.
The last campus shooting at Northwestern University was in March of 1995, when Professor Mario A. Ruggero – who today works in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders – was shot on his way to work by a bitter former employee. Ruggero survived, and the gunman fled out of state then killed himself. No credible threats of a shooting have been made against Northwestern since.
Other schools have not been as lucky. The recent increase in high-profile gun violence saw 37 student and staff deaths last year at two universities, two high schools and one elementary school. Four people have already died this year in eight January school shootings, half of which occurred at universities. Schools across the country are reevaluating their active shooter safety procedures, and some, including one Chicagoland high school that had police fire blanks during their controversial “code red” drill in January, are using novel approaches.
But Northwestern University Police Department, which oversees all of Northwestern’s active safety procedures, will likely stick to those existing procedures, at least for now.
“After a case like Sandy Hook, definitely there’s discussions going on and reminders about being prepared to respond to those type of incidents,” said Dan McAleer, deputy chief of the Northwestern University Police Department, of NUPD’s response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last December. The shooting left a total of 28 people, including 20 first graders, dead.
NUPD and Evanston Police Department training takes a variety of forms. The police departments train separately and together, and NUPD trains twice a year in classroom training, during which police respond verbally to hypothetical shooting scenarios posed by McAleer. They also participate in boots-on-the-ground training.
The latter usually takes place in the summer and involves NUPD officers reacting to a given active shooter scenario (there are always surprise twists thrown in: The suspected gunman is actually innocent, or an explosive device is planted in the building) by storming an empty university building with empty weapons to take down a “gunman,” played by a law enforcement officer or a paid actor.
“It’s supposed to be, if [a school shooting], God forbid, ever happens, that we put enough preparation and training in and that training and preparation kicks in,” McAleer said. “We act to that training.”
NUPD is not only in charge of overseeing its own department’s training, but that of the entire university. This year’s annual tabletop drill for university administrators such as those in Student Life or Facilities Management will take place in April, during which NUPD will test administrators on their responses to post-crisis scenarios: What if all of a residence hall’s students have to be relocated? What if a building in which a shooting occurred has to be closed? This year’s drill will be a continuation of last April’s, McAleer said, when administrators responded to a hypothetical ongoing shooting.
Ultimately, NUPD’s preferred response to a school shooting looks like this:
1. NUPD units respond to the situation, bringing rifles, ballistic shields and helmets, bolt cutters and other equipment. Three or four officers enter the building in a diamond formation, with rifles at the front and back and pistols on the sides. Ever since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, police now enter a building with a gunman immediately rather than wait for a SWAT team to arrive. They go straight for the shooter, ignoring bystanders until they have apprehended or killed him or her.
2. NUPD is in contact with Evanston Police Department.
3. According to Vice President for University Relations Alan Cubbage, University Relations processes information and instructions to send to students, faculty and staff at the Evanston, Chicago or Qatar campus. Messages are sent via text message, email or a phone call. (There were some issues this summer with only some students receiving emergency texts, but that “pretty well has been resolved,” Cubbage said.) The outdoor alert siren’s loudspeakers may be activated.
4. EPD requests support from nearby suburbs and pre-established alliances. EPD also requests Northern Illinois Police Alarm System (NIPAS) to supply a SWAT team and crowd control.
The entire process would take about six minutes, McAleer said, and police would arrive at the scene within three minutes. But according to NUPD Lieutenant Ronald Godby, the officer who gives presentations on active shooter safety procedures, three minutes is enough time for a school shooting to begin and end at the gunman’s will. That’s why, he says, it’s important that not only police understand how to respond to a shooting, but that students and staff do as well.
“The word ‘should’ does not pertain to active shooter,” Godby said. “It’s what you could do, what your options are.”
School shootings are unlike other emergencies in that there is no “right” way to respond to one. Each shooting – and each person’s experience of the same shooting – is particular depending on where one is and who one is surrounded by. And when a shooting just begins, students and staff are essentially alone.
“I won’t be there, police won’t be there,” Godby said. “Realistically, it’s you, and you’re in that situation by yourself. Even though there are a lot of other people around, you have to make the decision by yourself, whether that’s to go along with what the group is doing or to do your own thing.”
But NUPD does suggest some basic guidelines when in a building with an active shooter: lock the door, turn off the lights and hide quietly. More elaborate guidelines include barricading the door and even attacking the gunman, depending on one’s situation.
Different buildings have different locking systems – some can be locked electronically while other buildings’ doors must be manually locked. Phone calls to Facilities Management on which buildings possess which locking systems and whether professors have the ability to lock their own classroom were unreturned.
Northwestern rarely holds lockdown drills, which would be coordinated by department, for students and staff. Instead, NUPD offers active shooter safety education online, where an approximately 20-min video “Shots Fired on Campus” can be viewed with a netID and password and through a 50-min PowerPoint presentation, “Active Shooter and Extreme Violence Awareness” by Godby. Godby admited that most students probably would not watch such a lengthy video during their free time.
“When people get involved in role-playing it can be productive, but I think in this kind of situation, with the level of seriousness, I think people need to sit down and take the time to mentally calculate what’s going on,” Godby said.
Presentations once were given during Wildcat Welcome Week to all freshmen, but they are now only given to community assistants and other student leaders on campus. Freshmen must complete a safety PowerPoint online before arriving on campus. And training is optional for professors and staff. Since March of 2012, 550 faculty and staff groups have attended the presentation.
“I think a lot of them are probably not prepared [for a shooting],” he said. “It’s not their fault. A lot of them probably have never heard about the training that we provide or any type of training.”