Shooting panic in Bowling Green

A false alarm at Western Kentucky University illustrates the deep scars left by past shooting massacres on American universities, where the merest shadow of a gunman can force a shutdown across an entire campus.

A false alarm at Western Kentucky University illustrates the deep scars left by past shooting massacres on American universities, where the merest shadow of a gunman can force a shutdown across an entire campus.

Reports of gunmen on campus at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, KY, led to a lockdown for several hours on Wednesday afternoon the 23rd of October 2008.

It was reported to the police that people with weapons were seen in a building on a satellite campus and that shots had been fired on the main campus. The campus emergency warning system was activated and students and employees were told to remain indoors. An “all clear” was issued about two hours later after police searched buildings and didn’t find any gunmen. Classes were cancelled for the rest of the day.

According to the New York Times, officials later said there were at least two fights on the campus about an hour from Nashville, Tennessee, but no indication that shots had been fired. Five men were held for questioning, but officials said that they were released after no guns were found. The men denied being involved in the fight and no charges were filled.

Although police were unable to confirm that any shooting had occurred, Howard Bailey, vice president for student affairs, said that campus officials didn’t regret activating the campus emergency warning system.

In light of the shooting rampages that have taken place in recent years at Virginia Tech, where in April 2007, 33 people died, and other American college campuses, any report of weapons on campus is generally taken very seriously. In the post-Virginia Tech society colleges and universities have been grappling with how to calibrate their response to incidents like this, and how to keep people on campus informed about potential dangers without either touching off panic or unnecessarily disrupting the life of the school. At the Western Kentucky University administrators used a rolling series of text messages, e-mail messages and loudspeaker broadcast alerts to warn students and staff. The developments on that day in Bowling Green will add new data points to the discussion.

Not only school officials and media, but also the members of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance National Response Team kept a close eye on events at Western Kentucky University. PDA has a long history responding to school shootings and other public violence, offering support to chaplains and community leaders.

Although the incident in Bowling Green passed without a need for response, PDA’s National Response Team was on the scene at Virginia Tech in April 2007 and in Illinois in February 2008, when a former graduate student walked onto the stage of a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University (NIU) and opened fire on a class, killing five people and wounding 16 others before committing suicide. Some of the incidents to which they respond are widely reported in the national press, while others are hardly noticed outside a local community. But in each incident, there are commonalities. Laurie Kraus, a member of the PDA, stated that unlike a natural disaster, the signs of recovery and deep anguish may not be as evident immediately following a gunman’s rampage. “It’s not as visible,” she said. “There is nothing to rebuild. Instead it depends on a community’s resilience to surface after a time to help it restore itself”.

On Thursday the 24th of October 2008, one day after the shooting warnings at Western Kentucky University President Gary Ransdell said in a news conference that he was very pleased that the emergency communication system worked and that officials responded quickly: “The situation provided a real test of Western’s crisis communication system, and it prevailed.”

At the same conference, a woman who identified herself as Kim Carter, a parent of two students who were confronted by the police, said she was concerned how aggressively the officers responded to the threats. The campus newspaper, the College Heights Herald, ran a photograph showing a police officer pointing a gun at a female student lying on the ground, with the caption saying that the student had not cooperated with the police. As a respond to those accusations Mr. Ransdell sent an e-mail message to parents praising the campuses response: “The message that I am conveying to all of our students, and it is a message that has become commonplace in our society, is that aggressive behaviour has consequences which often go beyond the individual parties involved.”

On the college newspaper’s homepage, student responses on the incident vary from Andrea Daniels, an Elizabethtown freshman, saying: “I think the situation was slightly blown out of proportions,” to Alex Weires, from Buckner, arguing: “I think the school did the right thing. It’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s not something you used to worry about. These days, you realize it can happen any time.” All this raises the question of whether the potential for violence was worth the cost, and the panic.