What six minutes can teach us about communication during an active shooter threat. UD Public Safety officers wielded guns outside of Marianist Hall on Nov. 7. Photo provided by UD students.
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A social media post sent out the morning of Nov. 7 threatening a shooting on campus served as a wake up call for the campus community.
Joseph Kirill Hartrich, a sophomore mechanical engineering student, allegedly posted two threats to the anonymous and hyper-localized social media platform Yik Yak.
“I’m going to shoot up this school today at noon. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Marianist first,” the first one at 10:56 a.m. said.
“9 minutes. I’ll strike,” came from the same account around 11:50 a.m.
While UD Public Safety was made aware and was investigating the threat around 11 a.m., initial communication came from the university at 12:06 p.m.
“University of Dayton Public Safety personnel discovered a potential threat to campus posted on social media today. They are taking appropriate measures to investigate, including reaching out to other law enforcement partners for assistance. If you see any activity you find suspicious, please call UD Public Safety at 937-229-2121 or 911,” the email said in full.
More details were provided on the situation by the university and the FBI after the situation was over. However, students, faculty and family members in the UD community felt communication was too vague, not instructive and belated.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 69.8% of active shooter incidents are over within five minutes. The August 2019 shooting in the Oregon District that killed nine was over in 32 seconds.
Here’s what six minutes — and a week of reflection — has taught the campus community.
Time stopped across classrooms, campus and the country
Natasha Baker, a communication professor who specializes in crisis public relations, was teaching an advanced public relations class on how to deal with crisis communication when the threat began to spread over social media.
Her students told her of the threat, and she left her classroom to find out more information. After talking with other faculty in the building, she told her class they would stay put, and her students asked if they could barricade the door. Students began leaning tables against the door to fall on someone coming in because most classroom doors in St. Joseph Hall do not lock and open outward.
“As a parent, in my mind, I wanted to know that if something were to happen, that I could tell parents, ‘This is what we did; we did the best that we could with the information we had,’” Baker said.
Around 12:30 p.m. Baker gave her students the option to stay or go home. They decided to leave, and she asked that they stay in pairs and message her when they got back to their houses and dorms.
Downstairs from Baker’s classroom, communication department chair Joe Valenzano was making shelter-in-place decisions for his faculty.
He received a call around 11:30 a.m. from his nephew, a senior at UD, who notified him of the threat. Valenzano let his faculty know of his plan and then sent associate chair Chad Painter upstairs to tell the rest of the departments.
Tierney Acott, the sister of a Marianist Hall resident, began writing a letter to the university administration via email 74 minutes after she received a call from her sister. Acott lives on the West Coast, so the call came in for her around 8:30 a.m. PST.
Acott worked at Northwestern University as a communications specialist during a time when the university experienced two active shooter situations. She assured her sister that communication from the university would be “timely, clear and direct” and a lockdown would be “imminent” when her sister called in distress.
“I would much rather my sister spend three hours in a lockdown that turns out to be nothing than have the last time I talk to her be her trying not to cry as she hides in the women’s bathroom wondering if her university is going to do anything to protect her home,” Acott said.
Timing is Everything
Baker served as the communications director at Sinclair Community College for seven years where they ran crisis communication simulations and safety drills with public safety. She said she built her response in the moment off of that experience but “didn’t know what UD wanted” her to do in that situation.
“It seems to indicate a lack of planning,” Baker said of the university’s communication during the crisis. “It seems to indicate that there isn’t a communication plan.”
In her experience, Baker said she understands the university’s desire not to cause panic, but she wouldn’t advise a client to not communicate at all during a crisis situation.
“I think what the campus is looking for at this point is to know that you [the university] handled it the way you handled at this time, and panic still happened,” Baker said. “Does that then give them the impetus to say, ‘Okay, maybe we want to take a look at this again.’”
To her, the initial communication from the university felt focused on UD’s external image. A message instructing people to stay where they were or something more calming and instructive than the initial message would have been more effective, Baker said.
One concern Baker had arose when Danielle Poe, dean of the college of arts and sciences, emailed them Tuesday. Poe went through the events of the previous day from what she knew and what she learned since to give some clarity.
In the email, Poe said she did not learn of the threat until noon. She alerted upper administration and they told her they were aware of the threat and communication would be forthcoming. According to Poe, law enforcement responding to the situation had a tactical plan that included keeping “campus-wide communication to a minimum in order to avoid escalating the possibility of harm.”
Poe said next steps for the college are contingent on her meeting with Chief Kidd to get a safety assessment and create a plan for future threats.
In all of his classes the following days, Valenzano debriefed with his students.
“I’ve been impressed in people’s ability to differentiate between Public Safety’s reaction and everything else,” he said.
Valenzano commended Public Safety and the work they did to investigate the threat and take Hartrich into custody. However, the response he’s heard is people “unanimously feel that communication there dropped the ball.”
“To me, three things needed to be said, and they should have been said earlier,” Valenzano said. “The lack of communication on campus about what to do specifically created panic on campus.”
The three most important things he thought should have been communicated are: “Tell people what you know, tell them what you are doing and tell people what they should do.”
In another attempt to acknowledge the deficiencies of the university’s response, English professor Jenna De Gruy also wrote a letter to the administration.
“Students at the University of Dayton often feel unheard, misrepresented and devalued by the faculty and administration,” De Gruy wrote. “I am writing to you as a faculty member to express my concerns with the actions (or lack thereof) taken on Monday [Nov. 7]; primarily to try to be a voice for my students.”
The letter addressed many of the concerns that Baker, Valenzano and Acott expressed including the timing and vagueness of messages, but De Gruy also brought up the “insensitivity to the experiences of this generation of students and to the experiences of the Dayton community.” She said the events “deeply affected” students who have been through active shooter situations and community members traumatized by the Oregon District Shooting in 2019.
The lack of communication also brought up another concern for De Gruy: setting a bad example for future threats.
“It has the danger of sending a message to those who have been considering violence about how easy it might be to enact a mass casualty event without obstacles or intervention,” she wrote.
De Gruy feels the university’s explanations of the situation over the days following did not address concerns that students “do not feel safe and do not feel heard.”
Time to Do Better
Valenzano said the university should “take it as a blessing” that no one was hurt on Nov. 7. He said the goal isn’t to blame people, or have some “Gotcha!” moment, but rather for the community to come together to identify deficiencies and figure out what it can do better, which he feels leans into the university’s Marianist identity.
Acott also called on the university to “do better” when communicating with the campus community during crisis situations. Listening to the community and putting out clear communication is a good start, according to Acott. She said it is possible for the university to balance releasing too much information that could cause panic or interfere with an investigation and releasing too little to where students aren’t aware of the kind of threat or the places to avoid.
De Gruy advocated in her letter for student voices to be heard on matters of active shooter situations because they have “more experience with these events than any previous generation.”
How does De Gruy believe UD can move forward? First, she called for the university to issue an apology to the community for its communication response. The university needs to send out a student survey for them to voice their concerns and pose solutions, according to De Gruy. And finally, she wants to see a mostly-student committee formed to create guidance for public safety threats.
To draw on De Gruy’s letter on the value of student perspective, Flyer News listened to what dozens of students experienced and posited as solutions.
Rebecca Sutton, a sophomore living in Marianist Hall, is one of many students who told Flyer News that communication fell short that day.
“In the future, I believe there should be clearer directions regarding professors and their decisions to have class, as well as earlier and more frequent communication so students have more direction and certainty of what is going on,” Sutton said. “The University should make it clear if there is a physical threat and if there is, what action needs to be taken.”
At an Student Government Association academic senate meeting Sunday, Kidd, Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Christine Schramm, Provost Paul Benson, Vice President for Student Development Bill Fischer and President Eric Spina listened to student concerns and answered questions about the crisis situation.
Class representatives and students in attendance asked the panel an array of questions concerning mental health, building safety,message wording and timing, professor training, public safety’s response and how to move on as a community.
Spina acknowledged that communication around the situation lacked direction, and there were several conversations around how campus interprets messages from the university and what kind of action should be taken based on the message’s wording.
“I think that communication is what we wanted it to be,” Spina said. “But very clearly is not the communication that led to particular action by students, faculty [and] staff across campus.”
In this case, the university wanted no action to be taken by students and faculty, according to the panel. SGA mental health committee chair Mary Kate Newman said the absence of a call to action in the initial message didn’t translate to “take no action.”
Spina said he envisions clearer communications will come from the meetings and conversations around Nov. 7. Having an understanding of when, how and what will be communicated in these situations will help prepare the community for threats, according to Spina.
“We can continue to do after-action analysis and [are] happy to talk more about why I think we weren’t ready as a campus community,” Spina said. “At the end of the day, as President, that’s my responsibility.”
“I take responsibility that the campus really was not prepared in today’s day and age, in this moment, for what happened and how we might respond,” he later added.