Crises on campus: Is Kent State prepared?

A.L.I.C.E instructor Emily Ribnik teaches Kent State-Stark education majors distraction tactics to use against an active shooter, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2014. A.L.I.C.E, which stands for alert, lock down, inform, counter and evacuate, is a training program that teaches educators and students how to react if an active shooter is in the school.

Christina Suttles

Two years ago, members of the Chardon community were rattled when one of their own confidently strutted through his school’s front door and indiscriminately fired 10 rounds of ammunition from a .22 caliber handgun into the cafeteria. The incident only lasted minutes, but the damage for some lasted a lifetime. Three students were killed and three others were injured. While Chardon High School reflects during a vigil commemorating the anniversary, thousands of schools throughout the United States are working to avert a similar disaster. Officials at Kent State believe they’re on the cutting edge of this aversion.

Already this year, at least a dozen gun-related incidents have taken place on or near school grounds. While a study released by The Bureau of Justice Statistics suggested that school-related deaths are at an all-time low since 1992, that hasn’t kept more than an estimated 90-percent of universities from establishing protocols that specifically address the threat of a campus shooting.

Since the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, Kent has implemented response initiatives that train the community to respond productively in the event of an armed gunman on campus. University officials work with Police Services, the Kent State Police Department and an Emergency Response Team to abide by a set of strategic guidelines laid out in their Emergency Management Plan and Emergency Guide.

Emergency levels and university reaction

Level 1: A major disaster or imminent threat involving the entire campus and/or surrounding community. Examples include tornado, multi-structure fire, major hazardous materials release, or a terrorism incident. Mass Notification is mandatory. Normal University operations are reduced or suspended.

Level 2: A major incident or potential threat that disrupts sizable portions of the campus community. Examples include structure fire, structural collapse, significant hazardous materials release, extensive power or utility outage, severe flooding, multi-fatality incident, or an external emergency that may affect University personnel or operations. Mass Notification is mandatory but scaled based on incident type and geography. May require assistance from external organizations.

Level 3: A minor, localized incident that is quickly resolved with existing University resources or limited outside help. Examples include Odor complaint, localized chemical spill, small fire, localized power failure, plumbing failure or water leak, individual threats against persons and other police calls. Timely Warning or a Limited Notification may be required depending upon the nature of the incident, however the activation of the Kent campus EMP or an EOC is unlikely.

Based on information obtained from the university website.

William Buckbee, assistant police chief for KSU police services, said Kent State learned from the criticism Columbine emergency responders received and subsequently enhanced their protocols.

“The prevailing tactic at the time was that road cops were not equipped to go in and handle this type of incident, so they had to wait for the experts,” he said. “The SWAT team had special equipment and special training and handled this kind of thing all the time. It became obvious after that strategy had worked in the past for other things that police had handled but that is something new and dangerous…”

Now, solo-engagement is the standard protocol for police in the event of an active shooter — if an armed gunman were to open fire on campus the first officer to the scene would confront and apprehend the suspect instead of waiting for backup in order to conserve time.

Buckbee said ideally a group is most effective in these situations, but it isn’t always practical. The goal, he said, is to make as much noise as possible to alert the suspect of their arrival, which typically shortens the duration of the incident because many shooters don’t want to confront officers and commit suicide.  

“Obviously there’s more risk for an individual police officer, but its our job,” he said.

Officers are now also trained in trauma care, such as applying tourniquets and burn powder to seal up serious wounds, and they’re working to expedite the time in which firefighters and paramedics arrive on the scene.

Strict protocol is successful in some instances, but police say a flexible guideline that offers options is the optimal way to save lives. While the university’s emergency guide recommends students and faculty maintain a “shelter-in-place” response during an active shooter incident, it acknowledges that approach isn’t foolproof.

A.L.I.C.E. is a 5-step program offered by the department of Public Safety and the Human Resources aimed at increasing the odds of survival during a surprise attack involving a firearm. The program, which is an acronym for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate, provides versatile instructions for an active shooter incident.

Renee Romine, senior training and development specialist for the human resource department, instructs some of the 90-minutes training sessions offered during the school year.

First, she said,  if you hear an indication of realistic gunfire, or receive an alert through the campus mediums such as outdoor sirens, speakers, indoor alert systems, text messaging, or email — all of which were expanded after 9/11, according to Buckbee — the appropriate reaction is usually common sense.

Buckbee said the next step, Lockdown, is very difficult to enforce at Kent State because of the scale and openness of campus. This is why Romine believes barricading doors and windows is so important. Even in lecture halls and auditoriums where chairs and tables are stationary, it’s possible to improvise.

“I had one professor who said, ‘Well, we have more than 100 students,’” Romine said. “Well, you probably have over 100 bookbags.”

If lockdown isn’t possible, countering the suspect is another option, Buckbee said. Using what you have at your disposal as a weapon, or disrupting them in any way, is a good means of protection, as well as swarming and making a lot of noise.

In general, students expressed hesitant confidence in their readiness in the event of a shooting on campus. Kevin Steel, a sophomore marketing major, said he’s looked over the A.L.I.C.E. guidelines but wishes the university would offer more mandatory education regarding public safety in general.

Upcoming A.L.I.C.E. Workshops

For students:

March 14, 9-10:30 a.m., Heer Hall 107 (event is full; accepting wait list registrations)

March 14, 1:30-3 p.m., Heer Hall 107 (event is full; accepting wait list registrations)

April 9, 1-2:30 p.m., Kent Student Center 317

April 9, 3-4:30 p.m., Kent Student Center 317

April 24, 1-2:30 p.m., Kent Student Center 317

April 24, 3-4:30 p.m., Kent Student Center 317

May 7, 5-6:30 p.m., Kent Student Center 317

For faculty and staff:

April 30, 9-10:30 a.m.

Click here to register for an A.L.I.C.E. workshop.

“I think I took something related to a shooting during my freshman year, but other than that I’m not really sure,” he said. “I think if there was more promotion of these classes and sessions that are offered, more people might know what to do.”

Buckbee said while he feels the university continues to provide enough education, it’s sometimes difficult to promote community involvement because people don’t think it’ll happen to them.

Romine said regardless of community participation in the program, which still happens to be mentionable, she feels strongly that the university is prepared.

“I’m really proud of Kent State,” she said “We’ve had students that have come from Virginia Tech, and they’re proud of what we’re doing.”

Both Buckbee and Romine agreed that prevention is the best way to address the threat of violence on campus. The university has assembled a behavioral intervention team that gives students the psychological, emotional, and physical care they need. If a member of the committee, or an outside party, notices someone exhibiting warning signs, they’ll be referred to the committee to keep them from possibly breaking.

“Most of the time these don’t happen in a vacuum,” Buckbee said. “There are warning signs ahead of time and a lot of these cases someone knew this person was likely to do this and didn’t say anything.”

Contact Christina Suttles at [email protected].