ODU's readiness for an active shooter

Alex Scruggs | News Editor

An American English class of 15 students in the Batten Arts and Letters Building ran across the hall, down the stairwell and outside the building to escape a hypothetical gunman on a mild, mid-January day. At the back of the group, Dr. Bridget Anderson, their professor, made sure that no one lagged, shouting, “Faster! Keep going!” Their goal was to get from their second-floor classroom to the outside in under 35 seconds. They did it in 29.65. Under the instruction of Dr. Anderson, the class was practicing their Active Shooter Readiness Plan (ASRP). “We’ve got it down,” said Dr. Anderson before the drill, referring to the ASRP that she’s been developing for more than two years. “We’ve got a drill so that they (the students) don’t even have to think if something happens. We just do.” She argues that there is an obvious need to come up with a plan like this after a rise in mass shootings over the past several years.

The university’s Public Safety website has “Active Threat” instructions which defines the steps students and faculty should take to stay safe in an active shooter situation. Dr. Anderson, however, argues that without “classroom-specific” instructions, the policy is inadequate.

Dr. Anderson, a cheerful middle-aged professor with wavy hair, seems devoted to both her students and the university. Before her drill, in her office, I sat in an immensely comfortable armchair and talked with Dr. Anderson about her thoughts on ODU’s readiness for a crisis. “It makes professors uncomfortable, even having to think about this (coming up with an ASRP),” she said. “But to me it’s about being responsible… I get paid to be the leader and to be responsible in my classroom.”

Dr. Anderson’s ASRP draws on “RUN. HIDE. FIGHT.” methods demonstrated in a training video developed by Houston, with funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“It’s a bit gendered,” said Dr. Anderson. “In the video, the people who get hysterical are all women. But most of the information is good, I show it to all my classes.”

Her plan follows the video’s three segments. If her class hears shooting on floors above or below, Dr. Anderson gets them to run down the stairs and outside. “My friends in law enforcement have told me that you can tell the general area of a gunshot,” said Dr. Anderson. “I think we’ll be able to tell (if the shooter is either above or below).” If they hear shooting on their floor, they hide in the room. If the shooter approaches the class, they fight.

Self-defense against a shooter isn’t covered by ODU’s Public Safety website, but is on the “RUN. HIDE. FIGHT.” video, which ODUPD advocates for. “I can’t even stand to see a dead animal in the road. I am so gentle,” said Dr. Anderson. “But I am committed in my mind to the plan because it would be the right thing to do in that situation.”

Members of her class seem to agree with the urgency of the drill. “It can happen to anyone,” said Jack King, a student in American English. King says that his high school and community college in Oregon were both victims of active shooter incidents, although he did not attend during these times.

“My last school didn’t have one (a plan), I think it’s good that we do this,” said Brandilynn Aires, another student in Dr. Anderson’s class. Aires once had to barricade herself in her bedroom while on the phone with the police because there was an armed robber in her home.

Preparation and planning could be the difference between life and death one day, if an active shooter incident were to happen at ODU. Dr. Anderson agrees, saying, “I hope and pray that I never have to use this (ASRP), I really do. But, you know, I think it’s really important to be prepared.”

Across Hampton Boulevard from the BAL building, in her office on Monarch Way, ODU Police Chief and Assistant Vice President for Public Safety Rhonda Harris agrees with Dr. Anderson. Preparation is key. “Really when you think about preparation for active shooters, that’s way in advance,” said Chief Harris one morning when I met with her and Jared Hoernig, associate director of emergency management. “We really take a very strong, proactive approach, to making sure the community knows what to do in those kinds of situations.”

I mentioned some of this “proactive approach” before, noting information on the ODU Public Safety website. ODUPD also hosts workshops to help and encourage faculty to develop their own ASRPs. In addition, Chief Harris says, “We’re providing training for students in residence halls, the rec. center, other areas that have high student-staff (rates), so that they are capable, they know what to do in those kind of situations to be able to have the highest success of a low-incident of injury.”

This preparation is crucial, because unpredictability can dominate a situation where people in a crisis are unsure of what to do. “If an incident happens,” said Chief Harris, “and it’s never hit my mind before, I’m more likely to freeze. So what we want, we want people to have access to the information. It’s in the back of their minds somewhere, they’ve had some thoughts about it before and that’ll help them take the action they need to be successful if something bad were to happen.”

ODU police officers are prepared for active shooter incidents, Chief Harris said. “Officers are going to be entering the building, locating the shooter and stopping the shooter,” said Chief Harris. “That would take priority over treating injured people, because that person is continuing to kill other people.”

“And that’s the police response side of things,” Hoernig continued. “I have a whole coordination element of my own that involves coordinating with the Police Department throughout the response, making sure that mass notification is made to the campus community in conjunction with the police department and Strategic Communication and Marketing.”

But even before an incident is reported, ODUPD is already nearby. “We’re able to look at where we have incidents happen and have some kind of information about where past incidents occur,” said Chief Harris. “We use that to drive the creation of districts where officers are stationed, where they have areas of responsibility. We’re pretty fortunate that we able to pretty densely put officers out into those areas so it reduces our response time.”

The ODU campus and surrounding area are divided into five “patrol districts,” the most active of which is on and around Killam Avenue, according to Chief Harris. ODUPD prides itself for being prepared and having a quick response time for incidents because of this patrol method.

Rounding out our conversation about shooters, Hoernig noted, “The recovery process can go on for months. Think about Virginia Tech, they had a whole office created just for recovery. They had to decide what to do with an entire building.”

Chief Harris agreed that in terms of time, things like, “the first-aid piece; the crime scene; how long is the building going to be offline?; what needs to be done to re-unite people with their families?; who are our injured people?; what hospital do they go to?; how do we get that communicated to their families?,” stretch far beyond the shooter incident. “So that is probably the depth that maybe the students wouldn’t be interested in knowing about but you know the TV makes it look like this…”

“It’s back to normal after the gunman is dead,” said Hoernig, cross talking.

”Yeah, it’s 20 minutes, the police go in, they locate the shooter, they kill (the shooter), everybody looks out happy, and it’s this kind of on to the next TV show.”

Part of what ODU is banking on in being prepared for an active shooter is communication. One way the university encourages this is with the implementation of LiveSafe, an app developed by students who were at Virginia Tech during the shooting. The LiveSafe app’s motto, “Safety. In everyone’s hands.,” explains just what they’re about.

Four features are displayed on LiveSafe’s main screen: Report Tips, Emergency Options, Safety Map and GoSafe. The Safety Map and GoSafe features both utilize interactive maps of ODU, on which you can see where recent incidents have occurred and, if enabled, follow your friend on the map as they walk home (and vice versa).

The Report Tips and Emergency Options features are most useful to ODUPD, they allow users to easily communicate with the police. Giovanna Genard, ODU’s Assistant Vice President for Strategic Communication and Marketing explained their uses to me. When out at a party, “Maybe there is a situation that does not make you comfortable, and you may not feel it’s best to pick up the phone to call police directly,” she said. “Students who are used to texting can use (LiveSafe) to communicate directly with police and inform them of a situation where you’re not comfortable.”

The app’s features are paid for by the university, and are free to students, faculty and the community surrounding ODU.

University administrators know that emergency communication isn’t just in the hands of LiveSafe’s users. Genard is partially responsible for the ODU Alert emails. “The government requires us to send timely notifications for a number of reasons that they determine,” said Genard, warmly looking at me through wide-rimmed glasses in her office one morning. “In terms of the type of information that we send, we have to send the time and the location that it happened. But we go above and beyond in including as much information as possible.”

Genard points to ODUPD safety precautions that are included in many alert emails. For example, an alert sent out earlier today while I was writing this story informed recipients that ODUPD has received reports of scam emails in the guise of “ODU Alerts,” and “ODU IS HIRING.” Toward the bottom of the alert email were six ODUPD reminder bullet points on what to do after receiving suspicious emails. This inclusion is not required by the government, and Genard says is part of the university’s campaign to be both communicative and informative.

ODU Alerts are certainly a form of mass communication, they are sent to “all faculty, staff and students,” said Genard, who noted that most alert emails are sent under the instruction of Chief Harris, who determines whether something is relevant and urgent enough to send to the whole community. She also proudly noted that, “Even though the law requires that we notify students of incidents that happen specifically on campus, we take the extra step and notify students of incidents that take place fairly close to the university.”

Open and frequent communication between all areas of the university’s community is part of what makes ODU great, Genard says. “We are one of the safest universities in Virginia. Looking at a large public research university like this, the number of incidents for us fall well below the average.”

Before starting the drill during class, Dr. Anderson laid out the hypothetical scenario. They would practice the segments: run, hide and fight, in order, with assigned roles for some students. The first went to a fit-looking woman, Natalie McElroy. “You’ll be the mistress of the brick,” said Dr. Anderson. Laying on the desk in her office and brought with her to each class, is a clean and un-tarnished brick, monogramed with the word “Blanders,” which is Dr. Anderson’s ODU email address and nickname from some students. The brick would be used to hit the shooter in the bridge of the nose if he were to enter the classroom. “99.99 percent of shooters in the U.S. are men,” said Dr. Anderson, so she uses the “he” pronoun in her drills.

The Blanders brick isn’t the only weapon to be used by the class. Dr. Anderson has a pocket knife, which she brings to each class in her pants to use if there was a fight scenario, “You can’t get more concealed than down your breeches.” She mentioned that after teaching one day, she drove home, did chores and started watching TV before she realized that she still had the knife in her pants.

Dr. Anderson and McElroy would stand in the corner by the classroom door during an active shooter incident, ready to strike if the assailant were to enter.

“Can I join in with my skateboard?” said one student.

“Join us in the assault corner,” said Dr. Anderson. “Since the mistress of the brick is going to go for the bridge of the nose, you (skateboarder) come down on the top of the head. I will go for the jugular.”

“Do we have any conscientious maimers in the class?” Asked Dr. Anderson, met with a resounding “No.” “Thank god,” she replied. According to her, it is best to kill the shooter if possible.

Luckily for everyone, there was no danger during the drill. The class practiced their run, hide, fight scenario, and then continued learning. Dr. Anderson hopes that ASRPs like hers will catch on at the university. No one disagrees that it is best to be over-prepared then underprepared for a situation like an active shooter incident.

Before the drill, while Dr. Anderson’s students shot off safety ideas to one another, McElroy suggested that Jack Gently, a student in the first row, should act out the role of the hypothetical shooter. “British people are always villains,” she said.

“Shit, that’s a strong argument,” said Gently, who is from England.

“We’re going to try for no contact,” said Dr. Anderson.

“Well with the brick,” said Gently, “I bloody hope you try.”