Purdue University student Kris Miller was in a computer lab with his roommate doing homework on a normal Tuesday on campus when he received a phone call from another friend saying there was a shooting on campus.
“He told me that and we got everybody out of the room and said, ‘Hey there’s been a shooting in the EE building,’” Miller says.
The Electrical Engineering or EE building was just a few yards from the building where Miller was working. When he started telling other people, they didn’t immediately believe him.
“The first reaction was kind of like – are you serious?” Miller says. “We told them they had to get to a locked classroom and lock yourselves in until further notice. That’s when everybody’s phones started getting text messages and e-mails about the incident saying you need to lock down.”
But many students in the Electrical Engineering Building weren’t sheltering in place. Someone had pulled the fire alarm in the building and students were fleeing into Miller’s building. Miller and his roommate led a group into a classroom and locked the door.
“People were very confused and once we sat down, everybody’s cellphones came out. Everybody was on Twitter trying to figure out what was going on,” Miller says. “Somebody had a police scanner on their phone. We listened to that trying to figure out what was going on.”
Purdue University senior Andrew Boldt had been shot in the basement of Electrical Engineering. The suspected shooter, 23-year-old Cody Cousins, was in police custody.
The lockdown lasted for roughly an hour, during which rumors escalated online. One shooter turned into two, then three.
This photo of a plainclothes police officer carrying assault rifles quickly spread on Twitter, with many identifying him as the shooter:
Information to the outside world came slowly as well, with this first tweet posted to Purdue’s account nearly 15 minutes after the initial shooting reports.
Shooting reported on campus. Bldg Electrical Engineering; Avoid area; Shelter in place. Check http://t.co/vQnl8blHvd for updates— Purdue University (@LifeAtPurdue) January 21, 2014
Purdue also sent out text messages and emails during the incident. The alerts directed people to the university website for more information, but it was having trouble loading.
Still, acting Provost Tim Sands says that he felt Purdue’s emergency response systems worked as they should.
“I am incredibly impressed with the way that our current procedures work,” he says. “We practice them, as [Purdue Police] Chief Cox says, we hope it doesn’t happen, but you have to assume that they might. I don’t think there was a moment where everyone didn’t know what they needed to do.”
Balancing Too Much and Too Little Information
Debbie Fletcher, IU Bloomington Emergency Management director, says it takes time to validate information sent out in alerts.
“Social media is its own management nightmare in some cases, just because it’s so fast,” Fletcher says.
She says in a situation like Purdue’s, university emergency management teams are squeezed between law enforcement that doesn’t give out much information for ongoing investigations, and demands for that information from students, staff, and the public.
“At this point I would hate to second-guess anything they did,” Fletcher says. “They were trying to be as clear as possible, they got in front of the cameras pretty early. As soon as they had information, they provided it to people.”
The question of when and how many times to send out updates is another line emergency management teams have to walk. Not enough, and people won’t have clear instructions on what to do. Too many, and people may start ignoring the updates.
Former Brady Campaign director Paul Helmke cites the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting and a more recent armed robbery at Indiana University as arguments for more information, not less.
“People that get upset that they had the text and had to delete it later or it interrupted whatever they were doing – but if they hadn’t go that text and an armed robber had shown up at their classroom or their dorm, then we would have had a real tragedy,” Helmke says.
Lessons Learned For Students, Police
While students come together over candlelight and prayers, Purdue officials say they’ll be making time down the road to discuss possible improvements to their emergency response procedures.
“Unfortunately, sometime we get pushed together like this in a circumstance where we’ll go back, we’ll hotwash this,” Purdue University Police Chief John Cox says. “We will, as the provost mentioned, go back and do a lessons learned from this, share that with our senior administration and share it with the community so we can make the process better.”
Meanwhile, Cody Cousins has been formally charged with murder. Students resumed classes Thursday on a somber campus.
Purdue President Mitch Daniels was on business in Colombia when the shooting happened. He cut his trip short and returned to Purdue on Wednesday. He said he wanted to be with students and make sure the event was being handled as well as possible.
Funeral services for Andrew Boldt will take place Jan. 28. He will be laid to rest in his hometown of West Bend, Wisconsin.