Campus Safety Comes into Question
Issue   |   Wed, 09/19/2012 - 00:07

At 9 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 13, a rumor began to spread amongst the student body that there was a gunman on campus. Mass texts and Facebook statuses propelled the rapid spread of the story, until Amherst College Police issued a campus-wide email at 9:45 p.m. that the incident had been resolved and there was no threat to students. According to the police report, a student had jumped up during a film screening in Pruyne Lecture Hall in Fayerweather, startling his classmates and prompting the panicked calls to campus police.

Alice Li ’13 was in Pruyne that evening, attending a mandatory film screening for her history class, when the incident occurred. She saw another student walk up to the professor at one side of the lecture hall. According to Li, the professor and the student exchanged a few quiet words, at which point several other students suddenly stood up and sprinted toward the exits.

“I managed to grab my bag and ended up caught in the middle of the stampede, only stopping once I had been swept out of Fayerweather,” said Li. “People around me were in a total panic. In their rush to get out, they left behind shoes, books, bags and other things.”

Students called Campus Police, as well as the Town of Amherst and State Police, to report the incident. “References were made to a firearm, but no caller had actually seen one,” reported John Carter, Chief of Police at the College.

Campus police responded promptly. Within moments of arriving on scene, they were able to verify that there was no immediate danger. Campus police spent approximately 15 more minutes collecting relevant information, and at 9:45 p.m. an all-school email went out alerting the community that the incident had been resolved. According to the email, the police had identified the student who first jumped up in the lecture hall and caused the ensuing alarm.

“Because of student privacy concerns we are not sharing further details of that incident with the larger campus community, but we are following up with the student involved,” said Interim Dean of Students Charri Boykin-East.

“I wasn’t afraid at the time — I was only confused,” said Li, remembering the Thursday incident. “While I thought the student’s behavior was weird, I didn’t realize that people interpreted it as indicative of violent intent, and I didn’t understand why everyone was running away.”

Confusion was a common experience at the College that night. The 40-minute lag between the height of speculation and the email from campus police left students to rely on Facebook messages and word of mouth for what was happening.

“If the police officers had determined that there was a threat, a notice would have been sent immediately to the community,” said Dean Boykin-East. “While there is a need for information to be provided as quickly as possible in an emergency, it is equally vital that information be accurate.”

Though the administration considers the matter resolved, not all members of the campus community share the same sentiment. Priyanka Kumar ‘13 felt that the events of Thursday evening were dismissed too lightly, and that the email sent to students addressing the gunman “rumor” was inadequate.

“The word ‘rumor’ does not seem right because it almost invalidates peoples’ fear,” said Kumar. “The tone of the email made it seem like people were irrationally overreacting. Given the Colorado movie premiere shooting this summer, I don’t find it strange to be a bit more cautious.”

Li also expressed concern about how the incident was handled. “Afterwards, I felt kind of freaked out, realizing that if something had happened, I would’ve been caught in the middle of it,” she said. “I kind of wish we had more of an explanation afterwards, because I still don’t fully understand what happened and I wish I did.”

The Pruyne incident only added to the sense of unease that has haunted the beginning of fall semester. A recent break-in at Keefe Health Center resulted in the painting of swastikas on the walls. Bradley Keigwin, a UMass student, has been charged with breaking and entering, theft and vandalism, though there was insufficient evidence to convict him under the Massachusetts Hate Crime Statute.

Dean Boykin-East does not believe that campus security has been compromised in any way. “In fact, my impression is that the two recent incidents tested and confirmed the College’s ability to respond and manage critical incidents as they unfold.”

In the event that a gunman or other such hazardous situation should occur at the College, campus police urge students to take shelter, “behind locked doors and something substantial if possible” and to call their emergency line at 413-542-2111. More information and guidance may be found at the campus police department’s page on the Amherst website.

The President’s Office was contacted regarding the Pruyne incident but declined to comment.

-Siyu Shen ’15 contributed reporting

Update: Since the publishing of the article, Bradley Keigwin was vindicated when another person was identified and pled guilty to the charges.