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Olympic College lockdown creates teachable moment

Olympic College students walk between classes during their passing period Wednesday morning. School officials say they are building an outdoor loudspeaker system to improve emergency communication. - Lynsi Burton/staff photo
Olympic College students walk between classes during their passing period Wednesday morning. School officials say they are building an outdoor loudspeaker system to improve emergency communication.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/staff photo

The former Olympic College student, described as “very abusive,” told the student loan company over the phone that he would not be paying off his loan.

“He will be killing quite a few people and possibly himself,” the phone center supervisor told Bremerton police.

When the former student allegedly made the threats March 4 to shoot Olympic College students, it set off a campus-wide lockdown that became the college’s first real test of its emergency procedures.

In a world in which the threats of an angry person can pose legitimate dangers to campuses and workplaces, schools such as Olympic College have had to reevaluate how they protect their campuses.

The threat to Olympic College in March did not result in violence, and police arrested Ashley Paul St. James less than an hour after the school learned of the incident. St. James pleaded not guilty to the charge of felony harassment and is scheduled to go to trial this summer.

But when reflecting upon the school’s response to the events, administrators and security officers said there is room for growth, especially in emergency communication.

“If we were grading from A to D, it was a B,” campus security officer Herman Smith said.

Staff e-mails obtained through a public information request indicate a level of confusion about the threat and a breakdown of the school’s student notification system.

Smith was one of the officials who helped lockdown campus buildings and said it was the first opportunity for campus security to put its emergency training into practice.

“Nothing like this has happened before,” said Rick MacLennan, vice president of student services.

Under stressful circumstances, it’s easy to point out faults, said Rocky Wallace, supervisor of campus security.

“We would always like for things to work smoothly,” Wallace said. “It doesn’t always happen that way.”

It’s not necessarily a recent phenomenon, although deadly shootings at Columbine High School, where 14 died, and Virginia Tech, where 33 died, have captured headlines. Perhaps the first high-profile college campus shooting can be tracked back to 1966 at the University of Texas-Austin, where 14 people died.

Such tragedies aren’t always in far away places. Most recently, in 2007, University of Washington employee Rebecca Griego’s ex-boyfriend stalked her for months before killing in her campus office then turning the gun on himself.

Olympic College administrators learned about St. James’ threats at about 3 p.m. that afternoon and notified the security office. St. James told the Texas collection agency he would move into the homeless shelter across the street from the college, go to campus, shoot some students and then himself, according to court documents.

Wallace and MacLennan - two of the top campus security officials - were out of town that afternoon, but were contacted on their cell phones. A team of administrators including President David Mitchell, Vice President of Administrative Services Barbara Martin, Campus Security Sergeant Tim Hewitt, MacLennan’s assistant Sue Riddle and Vice President of Instruction Mary Garguile met at the campus security office in the Bremer Student Center to evaluate St. Paul’s threats, officials said.

During a ten-minute meeting between the school administrators, campus security gathered information on St. Paul, his photo, and security officers were brought in. By the end of the meeting, Bremerton police had arrived and administrators decided to close down the campus.

“We got to a decision fairly quickly after police got here,” Martin said. “We just didn’t want to risk it.”

Security evacuated the Bremer Student Center and the music building and began to lock down the rest of the campus. Smith said security had locked down about three-quarters of the buildings in about 20 minutes when it learned St. James was arrested in Poulsbo by Kitsap County sheriff deputies. The campus was reopened and the Communications Department e-mailed information about the incident to staff.

It’s the campus alerts from the Communications Department that could be stronger in an emergency situation, Martin said.

A campus-wide e-mail about the incident was sent about an hour after St. James’ arrest, but college spokeswoman Jennifer Hayes said her department did not realize until later that students were not among the mass e-mail list, labeled in the system as “ALL.” Only campus staff and student employees received the message. Hayes said the department will try to incorporate students in emergency e-mails in the future.

“We realized they need to be included as part of that procedure,” she said.

Olympic College also has an opt-in emergency text messaging system, which Hayes said reaches about 2,000 students and staff. But students said they had no idea there was a campus lockdown until they saw police cars on campus or read about it in the news.

Student Chris Hand said he signed up for the emergency messaging system in January, but didn’t receive a word about the incident in March.

“I check that stuff every day and nothing,” he said. “It just bugs me. What’s the point of signing up if you aren’t going to get the alert?”

He didn’t know about the lockdown until he saw a notice on the Olympic College website, he said.

Student Bradley Maness, who isn’t part of the opt-in messaging system, said he heard about the incident through the news. Brandon Burt said he found out when he arrived for evening classes and saw police on campus.

Even students who do opt to receive emergency texts are deleted from the system after two years as a way of keeping those no longer connected with the school off the list - but it may also eliminate students who take longer than two years to get their degree.

The communication system as it is now is not good enough to reach students quickly in an immediate emergency, Mitchell said, adding that the communication following the March incident created confusion among students.

“We are working on a way to get the message out to students right away,” he said. “Putting it out on an e-mail thinking they’re going to get it right away doesn’t work very well.”

Furthermore, many students don’t even use Olympic College e-mail accounts because they’re not convenient, Mitchell added. Universal use of the school’s e-mail services will be part of the school’s communication goals.

Putting it out on an e-mail thinking they’re going to get it right away doesn’t work very well

It has taken a tragedy for some schools to strengthen their security systems. The University of Washington’s Police Department was blamed for Greigo’s murder three years ago, which was followed two weeks later by the killings at Virginia Tech.

University of Washington spokesman Norm Arkans said the two incidents made the school realize its emergency communications were insufficient. It since upgraded its crisis communication technology to reach people through additional channels - including text messaging, e-mails and an outdoor speaker system - and relay messages more quickly in the event of a campus shooter, hostage situation or bank robber on campus.

“In a situation like that, it‚Äôs almost not fast enough,” Arkans said.

Also, more pertinent to the Griego murder, the University of Washington established the Safe Campus office as a resource for any student or staff member who feels unsafe or threatened.

If a shooter does come to the Olympic College campus, Martin said administrators wouldn’t meet for ten minutes as they did with the St. James incident. She hopes that in an immediate emergency someone would call 911.

“It’s different when you get a call and someone might be coming,” she said, adding that the imminent threat from St. James was more uncertain.

MacLennan and Mitchell said that Olympic College has ramped-up its security system in the past few years, partly response to recent incidents at campuses, office buildings and malls. The college has improved its radio communication, video surveillance and its relationship with law enforcement agencies, he said.

“In the last three years, colleges have really been looking at technology to help procedures for evacuation and lockdown and training for all employees,” Mitchell said, adding that the college is installing a loudspeaker system for emergency communication.

Meanwhile, students on campus said they don’t worry.

“I feel totally safe,” Maness said. “I don’t think anyone would go through with such a threat.”

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