The USM community has been thinking more about safety than usual in the aftermath of the armed standoff in Gorham on Wednesday, Jan. 22.
The number of school shootings has been on the rise throughout the U.S., with approximately 10 incidents recorded in 2012 and 28 in 2013. A school shooting is an act of gun violence taking place on a high school or college campus on or near school grounds while students were present. In January alone, 2014 has already seen approximately 11 school shootings. While the recent incident at USM ended peacefully, it has more people at USM looking at how they can keep the community safe.
“I think Mainers sort of live in a bubble,” said undeclared freshman Christopher Wright. “A lot of people don’t think as much about dangerous situations, because they don’t happen as often up here.”
The number of school shootings in the U.S. this month has opened the doors for conversation about USM’s emergency response plans and whether the community would be prepared for similar or worst-case scenario situations.
“Unfortunately, we live in a world where these things can happen anywhere and at any time,” said director of Public Affairs Robert Caswell. “We need to be as prepared as we possibly can be.”
Right now, USM uses e2Campus, a third-party emergency notification system, to send safety alerts when there is a dangerous situation on or near either campus. It also sends out emails to the university email accounts of students and staff.
“It’s a really great system,” said director of Public Safety Kevin Conger. “It literally takes just a few minutes to sign up, and students can choose what kind of alerts they want to receive.”
Through e2Campus, anyone can sign up for alerts on emergency situations or serious weather conditions, and there is a separate storm line for the Lewiston-Auburn campus. Because alerts are sent to personal phones, students are required to sign up to receive these alerts.
“I signed up for the alerts within the first week I was here at school,” said freshman psychology major Allison Tucker. “I totally forget about it until there’s a snowstorm and get that text that says no school, then it’s back to bed for me.”
Usually that’s how the service is used, to inform students of dangerous road conditions due to the weather and sometimes of cancellations. But on the night of the stand-off, three texts were sent over the course of the 5 hour event, telling students to avoid the downtown area. However, the text messages only informed students that there was an emergency situation and that they should avoid the downtown area.
“I didn’t really know what was happening from the university messages,” said Tucker, “but, obviously, I just jumped on the computer and looked up the local news coverage.”
“As dangerous as the situation was for the student inside the house and the law enforcement officers who responded, students in the surrounding area were safe, so we didn’t want to alarm anyone,” said Caswell.
“It wasn’t super concerning,” said sophomore pre-med major Joseph Walter.
Cogner noted that it is important to remember that in emergencies, like a situation in which there is an active shooter on campus, the person causing the scene will likely have access to the information law enforcement is releasing, so they need to be discreet with what information they make available to the public.
“Our goal is to make people aware of a situation and aware that they need to avoid it,” said Cogner. “Not being journalists, we don’t have the need to get the story out there, [we] just need to relay information to make sure people steer clear so law enforcement can do what they need to do.”
Similar messages were sent out via email to resident students on the Gorham campus and students who were involved with Greek Life. Residential life staff spanned across campus, making sure that all students in the resident halls and campus public buildings were aware as well.
“It felt like it was being very well contained,” said sophomore biochemistry major Chris Fitzgerald. “Residential staff went into overdrive to make sure people felt like they were protected.”
According to coordinator of Student Activities Dan Welter, communication went as well as it could have, and the only minor issue was that the university did not know how to contact non-resident students who live nearby in the town of Gorham who would have benefitted from the information. As the system is set up now, the university would have had to email the listserv for all students to contact that smaller selection.
“We’re currently looking into our mailing lists and how we can make them more efficient,” said Welter.
There is no way to contact just off-campus Gorham residents, and Caswell said they did not want to alert every USM student by sending out an alert to the all student listserv, so those students were left with local news coverage for information.
“I think there are always going to be circumstances where we might not be able to reach everybody,” said Caswell. “But if the situation had been different, and students outside the cordoned off area were in danger or might have been in danger, we would’ve contacted everyone.”
“The text messages [through e2Campus] are a good tool, but might be underutilized,” said Cogner.
In the situation in Gorham, no one was injured, but students have been asking what would’ve happened if the incident had occurred on-campus instead of in an off-campus location.
“Luckily everything ended up working out and no one was hurt,” said Wright. “It would have been terrible to have something like what happened at Purdue happen here.”
USM Public Safety officers participate in annual training with other local law enforcement for active shooter situations. Over the summer, the department held drills in Bailey Hall on the Gorham campus along with officers from the Gorham, Scarborough and Windham police departments.
“We have a lot of resources to draw from for a small agency,” said Cogner. “Personnel-wise and networking-wise, we’re in a good place to respond to any situation. We’re all in this together.”
Local law enforcement trains to deal with various emergency situations using the National Incident Management System, a comprehensive, national approach to emergency situations.
“Basically, NIMS sets the standard guidelines and how to respond to emergencies. It’s very structured,” said Cogner. “Each situation is going to be different, but we know how to react as an agency.”
Cogner said that tactical information is sensitive and cannot be released, as law enforcement cannot risk anyone planning a crime being aware of law enforcement’s protocol for responses. There is a document on the Public Safety website listing what students should expect from them, as well as what a student should do in case an active shooter situation arises.
“It’s a lot of stuff that you’re going to read and go, ‘oh, that’s so basic,’ but it’s worth taking the time to read,” said Cogner.
Cogner also said that the department hopes to work with other departments at the university to include this information more regularly, specifically at student orientations, and are working to develop and release a short video to inform students of how to remain safe.
“We’re in a good place,” said Cogner, “and we’re working to be in an even better position.”