University community experiences widespread confusion as false reports of active shooter spread around campus
UPDATE: This article has been updated to include an additional interview on the confusion felt in the scare. The Daily has also included more of Fitzgerald’s statement to clarify officers have so far found the balloon popping to be innocent.
After various reports of an unconfirmed active shooter threat on campus, the Division of Public Safety and Security notified the University of Michigan community that police found no evidence of this threat. The University sent this latest report through a UM Emergency Alert email Saturday at 7:51 p.m, as well as on Twitter.
UM EAlert Ann Arbor Update: All Clear. Police have determined there is no threat to the community. Buildings are open. All clear. BR/> — U-M DPSS (@umichdpss) March 16, 2019
UM EAlert Ann Arbor Update: All Clear. Police have determined there is no threat to the community. Buildings are open. All clear. BR/>
— U-M DPSS (@umichdpss) March 16, 2019
At 5:06 p.m., the University alerted campus to the unconfirmed shooter reports, advising students, faculty and staff to “run, hide, fight.” Another UM Emergency Alert at 5:18 p.m. described the threat as “unconfirmed reports” and to “stay away” from the Mason Hall area.
Unconfirmed reports of active shooter, Officers are in the area checking. Stay away from the area of Mason Hall. — U-M DPSS (@umichdpss) March 16, 2019
Unconfirmed reports of active shooter, Officers are in the area checking. Stay away from the area of Mason Hall.
— U-M DPSS (@umichdpss) March 16, 2019
According to a statement from University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald, DPSS received 20 phone calls alleging a possible active shooter on the second floor of Mason Hall. The reports came in at 4:35 p.m., the same time as a vigil commemorating the 50 people killed in a shooting at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday. Officers from DPSS, the Ann Arbor Police Department, Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, Michigan State Police and FBI responded at the scene.
Fitzgerald also wrote police confirmed there was balloon popping in the same area where gunshots were reported. He further wrote preliminary investigation by the police found no malicious intent in the balloon popping activity.
Noting the terror students experienced, Fitzgerald reminded the University community of resources available to them.
“This was a traumatic day for many. And we want everyone to know about these important resources that are available to the campus community,” Fitzgerald wrote. “Our campus offers resources to all students through CAPS, the university’s counseling and psychological services at 734-764-8312. Faculty and staff can receive support through the Faculty and Staff Counseling and Consultation Office at 734-936-8660.”
Sunday, in the Michigan League Underground from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., CAPS counselors were available to speak with students.
According to DPSS deputy police chief Melissa Overton, police activated the emergency alert system and responded immediately.
“We activated the emergency alert system for people to run, hide and fight, and that’s what we train here on campus,” Overton said to The Daily before DPSS had determined there was no threat to campus. “Currently, we are clearing the buildings.”
Though there was no active shooter on campus, in the time between DPSS’ initial warning and the all-clear signal, students and faculty alike were swept up in a wave of confusion.
At 4 p.m. on the Diag, about 200 students and community members were participating in the vigil. About 30 minutes into the event, police officers shouted at the attendees to run and take cover. Attendees sprinted to the nearest buildings, with many taking shelter in buildings like the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library or the Law Library.
Recent University alum Haleemah Aqel, a co-founder of the Islamophobia Working Group, helped organize the vigil. Aqel recounted seeing chaos ensue from her view atop the Hatcher steps.
“As one of the organizers of the vigil, I was up on top of the Hatcher steps and at the time everything was very silent,” Aqel said. “It just felt very peaceful because we were just remembering the victims and I think we were in the middle of transitioning … and then all of a sudden I just see two police officers run into the crowd, screaming, ‘run’, and we were all freaking out. I thought there was someone in the crowd, that had a gun, or there was just a threat … because I saw everything from where I was.”
Aqel noted the vulnerability of people of the event, especially in the context of commemorating victims of a mass shooting.
“The reason why this incident is going to be very traumatic to me and many people in the crowd, is that a lot of people in the crowd, they’re brown people, a lot of them are Muslims, and from what we just saw in New Zealand, this happening at a mosque during the most vulnerable time for people, this incident people were in the Diag and this was a very vulnerable time because we were remembering victims,” Aqel said.
Zaynab Elkolaly, a senior at Washtenaw Technical Middle College, spoke at the vigil, encouraging people to be fearless in the face of hate and violence. Elkolaly emphasized this message, while also acknowledging how the fear students felt when officers told them to run.
“Obviously I don’t want people to be afraid but at the same time I think it was eye-opening for a lot of them — this is what people in New Zealand experienced but they weren’t as fortunate as us,” Elkolaly said. “I think it really put into perspective for those who may not have had that perspective.”
LSA junior Yara El-Tawil, another attendee of the vigil, echoed this thought, noting how similar the thoughts running through her mind may have been to the victims in Christchurch.
“This is what happened to them and it was because of the same reason, we are people of color, we are Muslims, who don’t fit in with what people think is normal I guess,” El-Tawil said. “That’s just incorrect because we’re so much more than that and people don’t deserve to be targeted for who they are and what they were marching for and standing for, so that was a lot of the things that were running through my mind during that couple hours.”
The experiences of those not at the vigil were just as confusing and terrifying.
Kinesiology freshman Brian Heyman was studying for an exam with a friend at the Shapiro Undergraduate Library when he started receiving texts about a possible active shooter near Mason Hall. He said at first he was skeptical, because he wasn’t receiving any official notification from the University. However, when rumors started spreading that the UGLi wasn’t safe, he relocated to Hatcher. And after a person of authority stood on a table and reaffirmed the potential threat, Heyman really started to believe it. The group of people he was with in the UGLi crowded into one room, and shortly after a woman ran by and started yelling for people to run, riling up the crowd.
“After some random woman started freaking out and told us all to move, we started sprinting up the stairs to the fifth floor, we thought we were running from someone, so it was very frightening,” Heyman said. “We legitimately thought we were in danger.”
Heyman recounted how the false information spread through murmurs in the UGLi.
“We thought there were three men, we thought one was in the UGLi, one was in Mason and one was somewhere around Brown Jug,” Heyman said. “And there were just so many rumors going around, people saying oh, six people are injured, they got two of them, the shooter’s dead — none of that really happened.”
When Heyman ran to the fifth floor, he encountered police officers, which further increased his terror. He said he began running for his life. Eventually, he started receiving notifications from the University that it was safe to leave, and the officers escorted people outside.
LSA junior Tiffany Chiang was stuck on North Campus in the Duderstadt Center. She said she was unaware of the reports until her friends started texting her and she began listening to the police broadcast. Others on North Campus, she said, also seemed uninformed.
“I got multiple texts from some of my friends, but it didn’t really seem like anybody knew what was going on on North Campus, the buildings weren’t shut down, there weren’t any announcements or anything, so either people didn’t know, or nobody really cared,” Chiang said.
Another student, who requested to remain anonymous for safety reasons, told The Daily she was in Mason when she received the alert. As she walked into the hallway, a police officer approached her with suspicion.
“I peered down the hallway, saw a figure that turned out to be a policeman and he saw me peering, I saw him peering and he freaked out and was like, ‘Get your hands up!’ and I was like, ‘I’m just a student,’ so then he was like, ‘Come towards me,’ and I was like, ‘OK’ … he said it’s fine just go down the stairs and leave,” the student said.
With rumors and misinformation spreading rapidly, some students felt the University failed at communicating with students effectively and keeping campus calm.
El-Tawil said if there had indeed been an active shooter, people may have lost their lives due to ineffective communication.
“We did hear a lot of conflicting reports from the police, from DPSS, people spreading different rumors and if there had been a really bad active shooter situation then people would not have made it out alive because of how poorly coordinated it was,” El-Tawil said. “I definitely felt with conflicting messages of like oh it’s safe, no it’s not, stay where you are, evacuate, it felt like a lot more unsafe to take any type of action because no one really knew what to do.”
Chiang felt similarly, saying she wouldn’t have known anything about the situation if she hadn’t been texting with her friends and checking Facebook.
“The lack of communication was pretty sad,” Chiang said. “I feel like if I didn’t have friends to tell me what was going on I wouldn’t have known anything was happening. Or if I wasn’t checking Facebook I wouldn’t have got any updates. I feel like the school should have told me about it.”
Heyman said for about the first 20 minutes after he began to hear rumors of a shooter, he didn’t receive any official notification from the University.
“I didn’t hear anything from the University or some alert, and apparently a couple people got alerts — I was not one of them,” Heyman said. “I think you had to sign up for some phone call thing or whatever but I didn’t get any alerts from the University.”
He said the University’s reaction to the severity of the situation was definitely called for, but that it needs to do a better job in controlling the information spread and getting alerts out quickly.
“Overall in the general situation, I thought the level of intensity from the University’s reaction and the University’s safety precautions, I thought that was actually pretty solid given that it was a false alarm, and I thought they reacted well in terms of the seriousness of the situation, but I also think there needs to be some way to control where people are going and control the words that are getting spread around,” Heyman said. “And they also need to be more proactive in the alerts they’re sending out to let people know where a safe place is to be, let people know where a dangerous place it to be, where to avoid … It was a very stressful situation, not really knowing anything that was going on, just hearing it from our friends, being very unaware of a very dangerous situation.”
I'm actually asking. Wyd, @UMich? Make your communication protocol make sense. Help me understand the logic of phone calls to staff within minutes of the incident, which didn't include hall directors. Explain why it was acceptable for students to be the last to be informed. — Wendy Peffercorn (@bmariewrites) March 16, 2019
I'm actually asking. Wyd, @UMich? Make your communication protocol make sense.
Help me understand the logic of phone calls to staff within minutes of the incident, which didn't include hall directors. Explain why it was acceptable for students to be the last to be informed.
— Wendy Peffercorn (@bmariewrites) March 16, 2019
Despite the fear induced by the report, Elkolaly reminded the University community to remain fearless.
“I want people to continue to be fearless,” Elkolaly said. “I said it in my speech and even after this all has happened I’ll say it one million times after, do not be afraid.”
Amara Shaikh, Riyah Basha, Grace Kay and Sayali Amin contributed reporting to this article.