Saturday, Oct. 22, an anonymous threat placed the College of William and Mary campus under shelter-in-place orders for 34 minutes as the William and Mary Police Department responded. The suspect was eventually placed in custody and a Tribe Alert — the College’s emergency notification system run by its Emergency Management Team — was sent lifting the shelter-in-place with no reported injuries.
Threats to campuses across the country are usually monitored and responded to by threat assessment teams. A 2008 law, passed one year after the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 32 people, requires all Virginia public higher education institutions to have these threat assessment teams.
The College has both a threat assessment team and an emergency management team, which is a 13-person group led by two co-chairs, Vice President for Student Affairs Virginia Ambler and WMPD Chief of Police Deborah Cheesebro.
“The threat assessment team can help with assessing and trying to determine if a threat exists and making recommendations on what needs to happen,” Ambler said. “And the emergency management team guides our response in any kind of emergency situation. As you know, that can range from a hurricane to a power outage or a gas leak to something else.”
Since 2017, the College’s EMT has sent 22 Tribe Alerts cautioning about an incident on campus. Cheesebro said the teams use a constant and comprehensive approach in an attempt to address threats before they become emergency situations. Ambler added that redundancy is key to ensure everyone on campus gets the message.
During the anonymous threat this October, students heard the College’s campus-wide siren and received Tribe Alerts in the form of mobile notifications or text messages, which Cheesebro and Ambler said were tailored to the situation. Ambler explained the threat was “anonymous” because it did not have a clear source, and it was “generalized” because it was not aimed at a specific location. Thus, the team decided to take campus-wide action.
“We told everybody it was not an active shooter,” Cheesebro said. “We specifically put that out there to folks. Feedback we have so far is that was helpful for us to clarify that that was not the case on campus.”
When the first Tribe Alert was sent, John Dietz ’24 was helping to run WCWM’s Mini-Fest, a live music event, outside on the Crim Dell meadows by the Sunken Garden.
“I think the first thing that people noticed were the sirens that we could hear from Crim Dell meadows,” Dietz said. “And it was in the middle of a performance. And a lot of the people that I talked to afterwards were like, 'Yeah, I wasn't sure if the sirens were part of the music somehow or something.' And then when we got the text was, you know, when we started to take action and evacuate the Crim Dell meadows. Yeah, it was scary.”
Dietz said those in attendance ran for cover in nearby buildings, including James Blair Hall and the Sadler Center, and that ultimately, he was proud the organizers were able to ensure everyone in attendance was safe.
Ambler said the College tries to support student leaders to help them feel knowledgeable and equipped to handle emergency situations, but that due to the nature of campus threats, it’s difficult to communicate one-on-one.
“We always try to work with student groups to figure out safety and security around events,” Ambler said. “Just generally, that's sort of standard protocol when we support students in their activities. I think our approach to imminent danger and threat is less group specific and more campus wide because we never can know exactly who's going to be with whom and where they're going to be if we need to reach people.”
During the incident in October, the EMT sent a total of six Tribe Alerts.
“I appreciated that they communicated multiple times,” Dietz said. “It wasn't just one text and then, okay, it's over.”
Ambler emphasized the need to be clear when there is no longer a threat to the campus.
“The important thing from a campus community and a well-being standpoint is for us to be really clear when the alert is over and when shelter in place is over and students can return to their normal activities,” Ambler said. “Because we know certainly from the experience that our colleagues at UVA had when they had a very long shelter in place, that this is just a very stressful situation. And so we always want to make sure students know as soon as possible when they can go back to normal activity.”
While the EMT has worked with University Communications to create a standard set of alerts, sometimes pre-existing prompts or common messages don’t fit the situation. In this case, Ambler said the Tribe Alerts were tailored to the anonymous threat and that immediacy was prioritized.
“There always has to be room for professional judgment so that if there is truly an imminent threat and that we don't have to wait to convene a group of people to decide what we're going to put out,” Ambler said. “We empower whoever is in authority at that moment to notify the campus if there is an imminent threat.”
Cheesebro said that the College’s team is constantly evolving, learning from situations at the College and elsewhere.
“What those incidents do is they give us additional information to look at,” Cheesebro said. “It gives us protocols to look at, gives us results to look at. It gives us feedback from other situations on how people saw the communications that occurred in those situations and any questions that perhaps lingered after those situations. And so we can take all of that and we put it right back into our mix — of the emergency management team, the University Communications Working Group for the EMT. And we evaluate constantly based on those kinds of situations and incidents. They don't have to be here at William and Mary for us to learn from them.”
She noted, for instance, that the College is currently working to install a new outdoor emergency communication system that will be able to broadcast emergency messages, rather than simply a siren. Cheesebro said the system was already in the works before October’s threat and expects it to be operational by 2023. She also acknowledged the College’s notification system, which is 10 years old, is becoming outdated. A more technologically-advanced system has been funded and approved by the Board of Visitors, with a contract under negotiation.
Cheesebro also said that while some Tribe Alerts communicate not necessarily violent threats to campus, such as power outages or weather, she hopes students will take the time to read them and take the instructions seriously.
“But I think it's safe to say that these incidents have heightened folks’ awareness and the level of anxiety goes up with each and every one,” Cheesebro said. “And it's our job to continue to look at this on a day to day basis and do everything we can to have everybody feel safe.”
During the October threat, back in the basement of Sadler, Dietz said this anxiety was palpable.
“Everyone was terrified,” Dietz said. “All of us have grown up with the threat of school shootings or other events like that hanging over our heads. And I think a lot of us kind of think, no one thinks that it would happen to them. And so I feel like I was seeing a lot of people scared that they were in a situation that we've all kind of collectively dreaded.”
Data compiled by Flat Hat Data Editors Jing Li and Michelle Zhou.