By Emma Malinak and Fraley Williams
Washington and Lee University professors, students and parents are angry about the lack of preparation before, and information following, the Nov. 1 security threat and subsequent lockdown.
Professors said they felt unprepared — due to both a lack of training and a lack of physical resources, such as door locks — to keep their students safe. Students said they were confused, and still are, about the nature of the threat and the purpose of a building-by-building search. And parents are frustrated that they had to learn about the lockdown through social media rumors rather than direct communication from the university.
“Psychological harm was done yesterday to many,” Wendy Randall Wall said on the Washington and Lee Parents Facebook page Nov. 2. “This was not a drill but real to these students. Many of our kids were traumatized by the situation as it was.”
A lack of specific communication from university officials generated a wide variety of responses on campus. Some students said they hid under desks or in closets fearing serious danger. Others said they assumed the campus alert was a phishing scam and didn’t take it seriously.
But university officials insist “the situation was resolved without incident,” according to a Nov. 2 statement released by President Will Dudley.
Police found no active danger after university administrators received an emailed threat of violence. Students and employees locked down for nearly four hours while police conducted a building-by-building search, according to messages from the campus’ alert system.
Members of the campus community are still frustrated, and even angry, that the same questions they had on Nov. 1 are still unanswered.
“We’re still thinking about it. That’s the thing with crisis: it doesn’t just end, it smolders,” said Ady Dewey, a visiting professor of strategic communications at W&L. She previously taught at Bridgewater College and was there when two officers were killed by an active shooter in February.
“Once you’ve gone through a situation like that, you’re forever changed,” Ady Dewey said.
Dudley’s statement said the threat was anonymous and unlikely to have come from the campus community. He also confirmed that there was a “separate incident” at the nearby Davidson Park neighborhood where fireworks were mistaken for gunfire.
Since then, local law enforcement and university public safety officials have directed all inquiries about the lockdown to the university’s communications department. But no additional statements have been released, and police reports have been withheld because officers say the investigation is ongoing.
Professors, students and their parents still want answers — and reassurance that the campus will be more prepared if a similar threat occurs in the future.
Why did some students and professors not feel prepared?
Toni Locy, a journalism professor at W&L, said professors had “woefully inadequate” preparation to feel safe during the lockdown.
She said she attended an optional safety training this fall where Craig VanClief, director of public safety, showed a video filmed at Ohio State University about how to evacuate or hide during an active-shooter crisis. There were no discussions about how to adapt specific strategies to W&L’s campus, Locy said.
“It felt like more of a meet and greet [with VanClief] than the nuts and bolts about what to do in an emergency,” Locy said. “I now know the university is not going to help us figure this out. We’re on our own.”
The training is only required for new employees, Drewry Sackett, the university’s executive director of communications and public affairs, said. All other faculty, staff and students are encouraged to “familiarize themselves with, and bookmark, the university’s Emergency Management website,” she wrote in a statement to the Rockbridge Report.
The Emergency Management Plan on the site is a 41-page document that outlines how the university plans to respond to various crisis situations.
During a threat like the one on Nov. 1, students and employees should shelter in place, lock the doors and barricade as necessary, according to the document.
Many professors said the doors of their classrooms could not be locked from the inside, and their best solution was to push chairs and desks against the entrance.
If students or employees find themselves in an “unsecured area” during a threat, the document advises them to “immediately seek protection” inside.
But when the first emergency alert message was sent at 3:45 p.m., all campus buildings’ external doors were automatically locked, and students and employees could not use their ID cards to swipe into buildings like normal. That means anyone outside had to stay outside unless a public safety official was nearby to unlock doors.
Dewey said she read the university’s emergency plans as soon as she was hired this summer. But she said she’s “the exception” — she thinks about how to stay safe from gun violence daily because the Bridgewater College shooting still haunts her.
“Once you’ve gone through a situation like that, you’re forever changed,” she said.
Even after actively searching for training resources, Dewey said she didn’t feel fully prepared to keep herself safe at W&L because of the lack of specific information.
“My experience is that sharing more information makes people more comfortable and lowers their stress levels,” Don Beeler said.
Dominica Radulescu, a W&L comparative literature professor, said students and employees not originally from the United States felt even more confused than those who have at least experienced active shooter trainings in U.S. high schools or workplaces.
“This is specifically an American problem,” she said. “So for immigrants like me, this is even more scary, more terrifying.”
Tshering Mendrel, a sophomore from Bhutan, said he was confused by the vague “possible threat to campus” mentioned in the first university alert message. The use of the term “shelter in place” made some international students think it was a weather emergency, he said.
“For the longest time, I thought it was a hurricane,” he said. “A shooting threat like this has never been real to us.”
Skepticism about the building-by-building search
Although police confirmed no active violence on campus by 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 1, shelter-in- place orders remained in effect until 7:23 p.m. while law enforcement officials conducted a building-by-building search, according to university alert messages.
Some classrooms were searched by armed officers. Students and employees told the Rockbridge Report that they saw law enforcement officials carrying assault rifles and holding them at eye-level when entering rooms.
First-year student Cami Knott said the armed officers made her feel scared, not safe.
“It was crazy, seeing them walk past me with a huge gun in my face,” she said.
Junior Melos Ambaye said police were only walking through buildings “for the optics of it” and did not seem to be searching for anything. When an officer entered her classroom in the library, she said, he barely cracked open the door and just asked students if they were okay.
Some academic buildings, residence halls and athletic training spaces were never searched, according to students.
“Someone or something bad could have been in there, and we wouldn’t know,” said Nona David, a sophomore, who was locked down in Chavis Hall, which wasn’t searched.
Dewey, who was locked down in her office in Reid Hall, said she watched officers from her window as they casually talked outside. She never saw police enter the building, she said.
“It was clear from their demeanor that there was no emergency,” she said.
VanClief did not respond to a request for comment about the search.
Missing details about the threat
Students and professors have said they felt frustrated by the lack of details released by the university. The type of threat was never disclosed in the campus alerts or official statements.
A source with knowledge of the situation said the anonymous email made general threats of violence and mentioned guns and grenades.
But Lexington City Manager Jim Halasz, who heard about the situation from Lexington Police Chief Angela Greene, said, “My understanding was that the threat involved a potential bomb or explosive device.”
Some even worried that there was active gunfire on Nov. 1 after police rushed to Davidson Park, a neighborhood that contains five of the university’s fraternity houses. A university statement confirmed that it was fireworks that were mistaken for gunshots.
Two house directors of fraternities at Davidson Park, along with eight students who live there, declined to comment on the situation.
Don Beeler, CEO of TDR Solutions, a technology company that counters and prevents threats in schools, said 11 colleges received threats in October alone. In each situation, clear communication is key to prevent wide-spread anxiety, he said.
“My experience is that sharing more information makes people more comfortable and lowers their stress levels,” Beeler said.
Concerns dismissed by the university
Locy said that Dudley was “dismissive” toward multiple faculty members during a meeting on Nov. 6. He was on a plane during the lockdown, yet he told professors that the situation on campus was handled well, Locy said.
She said Dudley dismissed a call for review of the situation. He instead said that the university will continue with a comprehensive safety review that is already in progress.
Sackett said, in the meantime, the university urges “anyone who sees suspicious behavior – including in email or online – to report it to Public Safety right away.”
Professors, students and parents said they are frustrated by the lack of specific information contained in university statements released on Nov. 1 and 2, and the absence of statements since then.
“As an alumni, I feel strongly that the university needs to be forthcoming with what exactly transpired today,” Deborah Munson Ealer, a parent of a W&L student, said on Facebook.
According to Radulescu, the Nov. 2 statement was “terse and uninformative.” She said rumors had already spread by the time the statement was sent out, so it was “too little, too late.”
“A campus, a community, that was so shaken needs more than an email,” she said.
Parents of W&L students also said the university should improve its emergency preparedness by supplying classrooms with door locks and trauma kits and implementing safety trainings.
“I would like to see uniform practices across the entire campus on what needs to happen in crisis situations, so everyone feels confident and capable, there are no questions, and everyone is on the same page,” said Wendy Randall Wall, a parent of a W&L student.
Dewey said that communication after a crisis is just as important as communication during it.
The university was quick to move on, she said, which is odd after university officials said in alert system messages that they were operating with an “abundance of caution” during the lockdown.
“An ‘abundance of caution’ needs to yield to an abundance of grace,” Dewey said. “Crisis communication cannot stop once a crisis is over.”