Police praised MSU’s response to gunfire, but campuses are vulnerable

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The Michigan State University campus, where a gunman killed three students and seriously injured five others Monday night, is a cultural hub of East Lansing, Michigan, where engaging with the wider community is seen as part of the mission. At an emotional news conference Tuesday, East Lansing Mayor Ron Bacon described himself as a “dad here in this community” whose children viewed the campus of about 50,000 students as a “playground.”

As the nation absorbs another tragic college campus shooting, one of the defining characteristics of public higher education has once again shown its vulnerability. Unlike K-12 schools, which typically have limited points of access, college campus buildings are designed as an open space for inquiries and gatherings. However, this openness can make colleges a softer target.

Michigan State earned early praise for its quick response to the unfolding crisis, with people on campus quickly alerted to the threat and officials swarming the campus in response.

Law enforcement received a call at 8:18 p.m. Monday reporting an active gunman at Berkey Hall, an academic building on the north campus that borders downtown East Lansing, university police said in a news release.

“The police response to that first call was absolutely overwhelming,” Michigan State Deputy Police Commissioner Chris Rozman said at Tuesday’s news conference. “We had officers in that building within minutes.”

Police issued an initial electronic alert at 8:31 p.m., informing people of a report of “shots fired” and instructing them to “run, hide, fight.”

The notification hit Professor Jack Lipton’s inbox at 8:32 p.m., and within a minute he received a text and automated call with the same message.

“Everyone was alerted very quickly,” said Lipton, chair of MSU’s Department of Translational Neuroscience and a member of the faculty Senate. “I’m very impressed and I’m not one to cheer for the university. I generally focus on the needs of the community, but I think they’ve served the community very well on this occasion.”

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Of the three students killed Monday, two were at Berkey Hall, police said. Another was killed in the student union. As the events unfolded, many students and parents listened online to a police scanner capturing a chaotic and chilling scene. The gunman, who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, had no apparent connection to the university, police said.

What we know about the MSU shooting victims

The buildings where the shootings took place are both busy places with heavy foot traffic. Berkey Hall, where the shootings began, is an academic building often used for campus club meetings in the evenings. The Michigan state fraternity, like those on other college campuses, is a popular meeting place. The union is open until midnight, drawing the Spartan believers and parishioners for food, coffee, learning and socializing.

Sophia Kalakailo, 22, spent hours barricaded in a room in a building across from Berkey, crying and listening to helicopters and police scanners. Her friends kept texting her, “Are you sure?” “Are you safe?”

She had long been concerned on campus after hearing about a student with a gun and threats over the past several years. Someone had been banned from campus, she said, but she wondered what difference that would make. “Last night just showed me that I don’t feel safe on campus,” she said, “and I don’t know if I ever will.”

S. Daniel Carter, President of SAFE Campuses, said student centers and academic buildings are often unlocked and open to all for many hours of the day. If staff come across someone who shouldn’t be there, they can ask them to leave, he said, “but in practice the doors are open.”

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“The essence of higher education is that it is an open, welcoming center for discussion and activity,” Carter said.

Colleges must balance the need for campus security with the desire for openness, Carter said; You don’t want to turn it into an essentially closed-off environment. Adding things like metal detectors would be a huge expense, especially at such a large state university, and would likely create bottlenecks at entrances. But he said, “The overriding reason it isn’t being done is that it would destroy what a college or university is about.” That’s why experts put so much emphasis on prevention, he said, on warning signs and investing in mental health services.

Some colleges and universities also have threat assessment teams that review tips and evidence to try to prevent violence.

When colleges are threatened, these teams quietly try to prevent violence

A few years ago, the Michigan State Department of Sociology took proactive steps to improve safety in Berkey. After some office thefts, the department used its own budget to install a keyboard access point on the fourth floor, Aaron McCright, the department’s chairman, said in an interview. These are nonviolent crimes, he said, but some in the department worried about being in the building at night. People didn’t want to “run into some stranger,” he said, in a dimly lit hallway.

McCright left Berkey Hall around 5:30 p.m. Monday, he said. As news of the shootings spread, he and other sociology departments connected email chains with graduate students and staff. Everyone was eventually accounted for, but waiting to find out was excruciating, he said.

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“If you send an email and you don’t get a response within five minutes,” McCright said, “your mind starts racing, you start worrying.”

Michigan state academic buildings are generally open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., according to a university safety report.

The public nature of the school’s buildings is critical to the university’s mission, McCright said. But people will be chastised by what happened Monday night.

“There’s going to be a lot more concern when MSU people see someone they don’t recognize,” he said. “That doesn’t look like a student, that doesn’t look like a faculty member. That will be hard to shake.”

Hours before the shooting, Michigan State Director of Higher Education Initiatives Stephanie Anthony was with a group of about 60 high school students at Berkey Hall. The students had gathered on campus as part of an Upward Bound program that provides tutoring and other services to prepare high schoolers for college.

Before Anthony left the building in the early evening, she said, she walked through the first floor of Berkey. The building appeared mostly empty, she said, except for a young woman, probably a college student, reading on a bench.

“This young woman is on my mind,” said Anthony, who is vice chair of the faculty board. “Just to think that someone could sit there and read, and someone could come through the door. … I just hope she’s okay.”

Shooting at Michigan State University

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