By Jana Persky
Columbine. Virginia Tech. Oikos.
The mention of all three places can elicit horrific memories of a shooter wreaking havoc on a school, an institution ideally considered a safe haven for youth.
Just yesterday, San Jose State University was put on lockdown because of reports of a gunman on campus. Although no gunman was found, the threat once again illuminated the need to be on alert on campus. Even at suburban Stanford, campus police are constantly working to prevent the next potential tragedy.
Police spokesperson Bill Larson said the Stanford University Department of Public Safety (SUDPS) takes its responsibility to prepare for an active threat—a person with a gun, knife, explosive or other weapon—very seriously.
Larson said all SUDPS deputies go through regular trainings on how to respond to a threat. He added that one lesson learned from past school shootings was that local law enforcement officers cannot wait for SWAT to arrive to stop the shooter.
“If there is an active shooter situation, the initial arriving deputies will go in and try to neutralize the threat—that’s a big change [in policy],” Larson said.
Larson said that SUDPS is also working to create tactical plans for different buildings across campus so that officers will know ahead of time how to respond to crises at different locations.
“[We do] an assessment of the vulnerabilities and [determine] if there was an active threat situation, how would we approach the building [and] how could we get into the building,” Larson said. “There are a lot of buildings on campus so it will take a lot of time, but we are actually looking to put together tactical plans.”
Larson said SUDPS also works in collaboration with Emergency Management and senior administrators to plan the administrative response to potential crises.
Emergency Manager Keith Perry said the University has a situation triage assessment team made up of representatives from departments across campus, including the University president and the Provost’s office.
According to Perry, if an active threat emerged on campus, SUDPS would simultaneously send responders to the scene and start the process of campus-wide communication through the AlertSU system.
He said the situation triage assessment team would convene as quickly as possible—either through teleconferencing or in-person—to determine the course of action across campus. Perry said the group has conducted “tabletop exercises” in order to prepare.
Perry said that an exercise conducted last fall helped give administrators a better idea of the best response to a crisis, even though it didn’t change the fundamental plans in place.
“I think what it did was it allowed [the administrators] to understand the impact that [an active threat] would have on the campus and the need for responding effectively and rapidly to resolve the situation,” Perry said.
SUDPS Sergeant Christopher Cohendet said the most effective way of preventing danger is reaching individuals before they become violent. Cohendet pointed out that in past incidents such as the shootings at Columbine High School or the Aurora, Colo., movie theater, there were clear warning signs that were ignored until it was too late.
Cohendet is a member of the University’s threat assessment team, a group of representatives of 10 different departments across the University that meets regularly to discuss potential threats. Both Larson and Cohendet encouraged community members to reach out with any concerns they have about others.
Once the threat assessment team receives a tip, Cohendet said the team will work together to evaluate the nature of the threat. Often, this means reaching out to those close to the individual to try to put potentially threatening comments or actions in context.
“The whole point is to understand what is going on in that person’s life,” Cohendet said.
He emphasized that the point of an assessment was not to get someone in trouble, but instead to get them help.
“We want to determine what we can put in place to help reduce the likelihood a violent act will occur,” Cohendet said. “There are lots of resources [at Stanford] and so we want people to see that there are other ways for people to deal with issues or conflicts.”
However, Larson said that an equally important part of preparation was ensuring that students, faculty and staff know how to respond if an emergency were to occur.
“We’re well trained, but it’s no good when [students] are in a shooting situation and [they] don’t have that training,” Larson said. “Lessons learned from previous shootings are that we need to get the message out to the community as to how to prepare until we can get there.”
Robin Hattersley Gray, executive editor of “Campus Safety Magazine,” a nationwide resource for campus security, said that basic prior training can be crucial to keeping people safe during a crisis.
“It’s kind of like what they do with airlines when you’re flying across the country,” Gray said. “They say, look around and know where your exits are. That’s something to keep in mind just as far as general situational awareness.”
For this reason, Larson said that in 2009, SUDPS Lieutenant Kay Iida created a one-hour safety presentation that teaches community members how to avoid and respond to an active threat.
“We let people know right up front that it’s not to scare and not to make them paranoid; it’s just to prepare them,” Larson said. “It’s unlikely but it’s always possible here at Stanford.”
According to Vince Bergado, a SUDPS staffer, a key aspect of preparation is considering your surroundings before a crisis occurs. Bergado says he tells staff and faculty to think about how they would respond to a threat that was outside their office or classroom door.
“Do you have something you can put in front of the door, or is your file cabinet too heavy to move?” Bergado asked. “Do you have a window that you can actually escape out of, or is it locked?”
Larson said that on request, SUDPS will come to offices or dormitories to give residents an assessment of the potential danger spots or potential escape routes in their building.
Run, hide, fight
According to Larson, if there were an active threat, every person should respond in one of three ways: running, hiding or fighting. He said the police department uses a YouTube video produced by the Department of Homeland Security and the City of Houston to break down these three options and when you should use them.
“If you can get out, get out and escape as long as you are escaping away from the gunfire and you’re pretty sure you know where it is so you aren’t running to it,” Larson said. He added that if a person can escape, they should run in a zigzag pattern and leave all their belongings behind.
Larson said that if there were no escape route, the next-best option would be to hide, particularly if an alert message has been sent out saying “shelter in place.”
“That means to barricade yourself, stay inside the building, secure yourself in place,” Larson explained. He said that when one is forced to stay inside, one should lock all doors and windows if it is safe to do so and barricade doors with furniture to prevent an intruder from entering.
He emphasized that students should not just cower under desks because escaping is the better option as long as it is safe to do so.
“[Hiding] may not be your only option—you may be able to escape through some other route,” Larson said. “So don’t just immediately hear gunfire and go under the table because you might be able to find a way to get out.”
Larson said that fighting is the last resort if your life depends on it.
“If somebody were to come into a room and they have a gun ready to shoot or they are shooting, you don’t want to just be waiting to be shot, you want to do something,” Larson said. “So we say, throw something at him, get him distracted and if there’s more than one person, the idea is to try to disarm him and try to take him down until the police arrive.”
Larson said this was a lesson learned from the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, when students may have missed an opportunity to disarm the shooter before he inflicted more damage.
“That’s why we’re learning from [past tragedies]—to get more education and information out to the community about the options that they have,” Larson said.
Contact Jana Persky at jpersky ‘at’ stanford.edu.