The call came in to the emergency line Sunday night: There may be a fight in a campus parking lot, and somebody may have a gun.
Charleston Southern University had closed down Friday for an impromptu three-day weekend because of Tropical Storm Hanna. Most students had gone home. Some 200 to 300 were still there, hanging out in dorm rooms, walking the quads, sitting on the tailgates of pickup trucks trying to decide whether to go to Sonic.
School officials had to make a decision and make it quickly: Do they send out an alert via cell phones, voice mail, text messages, to students and parents who signed up for an alert. This could be a scenario like the deadly massacre at Virginia Tech last year, a man with a gun loose on campus.
But the parking lot was empty. There was no fight, no gun. The anonymous call had come from off campus and didn't identify anyone as a suspect.
No alarm went out.
That worries some students and at least one student's parent who also has a child at Virginia Tech. But school officials defended the informal response, saying they quickly determined the threat wasn't credible and they didn't want to create more alarm than the situation raised.
"As someone who has gone through that for real, I don't think they handled it as well as it could be handled," said Angus McNeil, who has children at both Charleston Southern and Virginia Tech. "If there is a system in place to notify students, they ought to have used that system and used the system to notify them, then notify them the threat was not credible. The lack of infor-mation spins (panics) people up."
On campus Monday, there was little sign that students were concerned. Bicycles ridden to the student center were propped up on a pillar without getting locked. One student talked to another through the open window of her ground floor dorm room. But a handful of stu-dents said it did bother them to hear about the incident from each other or residence staff.
"I got an alert about (the tropical storm). They will call you about a hurricane, but they won't call you about something like this," said student Eddie Major, 18.
"Somebody has a gun on campus, that's serious," said student Aaron Vereen, 20.
School officials say they would have used the alert if they had been told there was a person on campus with a gun.
North Charleston Police were called. Campus security secured the parking lot; residence officials went dorm to dorm requesting every- body to stay put until they cleared this thing up. Some students say they were asked; some say they were told. Two more security officers were called in to patrol the grounds for the night.
"The threat was just too vague and too generic. We responded immediately, the police responded," said Bob Ratliff, dean of students. "I hope everyone understands the safety of our students is paramount. You have to take these situations seriously. But you have to have a measured response based on information. I think we would handle it (again) exactly like we did. I believe with all my heart we would have created more alarm (sounding the alert)."
Bomb threats and other emergency calls are a fact of life at most major schools, but smaller, religion-based institutions such as Charleston Southern, the former Baptist College of Charleston, tend to be quieter.
A student was beaten to death in a fight outside a dormitory hall in 2005. But neither students nor administrators could recall an earlier incident of a gun on campus. School officials contacted both College of Charleston and Furman University security officers, who concurred they would not have sent out an alert in that situation.
Still, Charleston Southern student Michael Matthews, 18, said the response Sunday bothered him.
"They didn't send a text," Matthews said. "Other people were walking around and they were keeping us in our rooms."
Case-by-case judgment call
Schools across the country put alert systems in place after the Virginia Tech shooting rampage by a student in 2007 that left 32 people dead.
Charleston Southern was among the first, installing the system at the beginning of the 2007 fall semester. The College of Charleston installed a system by the beginning of the spring 2008 semester.
But neither school used the systems before alerting students last week to Tropical Storm Hanna.
Officials at both schools said using the system is a case-by-case judgment call.
In the worst campus shooting since the Virginia Tech incident, Northern Illinois University in February used the alert when a gunman opened fire in a lecture hall, killing five students and injuring more than a dozen others before killing himself.
Officials at both Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois frankly conceded the best a system can do is limit the damage.
The Virginia Tech student was already inside a building that was locked down after two people were killed in a dormitory. The Northern Illinois incident was over by the time the alarm sounded.
CSU gets alert system running; Students, staff receive messages in minutes, published 08/05/07C of C buying emergency system; Rapid campus-wide alerts are goal, published 10/09/07
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