IU students express concerns about active shooter notifications sent out Sunday morning

IU sophomore Maddie Birch was sitting in her bedroom at Campus Walk Apartments when her phone started buzzing.

She picked it up and saw the words “active shooter.”

“I freaked out a little bit,” she said.

“Stay inside,” she messaged them. “Please don’t leave where you are.”

It was the weekend, and she was worried about her friends who had gone out.

She waited. She checked her locks twice and paced her living room, peeking out the window to see if she could see any police cars.

Constant notifications were streaming in on her phone. Someone said there was a shooting at a fraternity. Someone else said shots were fired on Hunter Avenue. Rumors were swirling, she said.

“I was looking at these texts and had this sinking feeling that it was near me, but I was just there waiting for confirmation that there was some guy with a gun,” she said. “It was scary.”

Meanwhile, IU Student Association president Dan Niersbach was at his house near the intersection of 11th Street and Woodlawn Avenue. He said he was worried but didn’t know what to be worried about.

"I just know there was a lot of panic, a lot of people on their phones trying to figure out where their friends were and if they were safe and if anyone knew where it happened,” Niersbach said.

Birch and Niersbach waited in their homes for 32 minutes. Then they got another notification on their phones from IU Notify.

“IU Police are responding to a shooting incident on the Bloomington campus outside the Henderson Parking Garage,” the notification read.

Birch realized her apartment was a four-minute walk away from where the shots were fired.

“Lol ok I live right next to Henderson garage,” she messaged her friends before returning to pacing the living room.

Birch said she walks past the parking garage every day. She was there just hours before while she walked home.

“It got freakier as the night went on,” she said. “As more details were released, it got closer and closer to where I was. It was such a terrifying thought.”

Niersbach opened up Twitter, where people were replying to the IU Bloomington tweet. 

Niersbach also typed up a tweet. 

“Why are we not given a location?” he asked as a response to a tweet from the official IU-Bloomington account. His reply received 62 likes.

Niersbach said he understood that the suspects were on the move and the location wasn’t clear, but it still took too long.

“It’s important to get the information out there immediately so that students know what they need to do and where they need to be,” he said. “Even just 30 minutes could be too late in situations like this.”

IU Police Department Captain Craig Munroe said the Bloomington Police Department received reports of a robbery off-campus around 1 a.m. Sunday morning. IUPD only got involved after the suspects ran onto campus, he said.

After realizing the suspects were on campus, it took time to communicate with IUPD, look at surveillance video and find out that shots were fired, Munroe said.

Munroe said the notifications were sent out in a timely manner after the information was clear to the police officers involved, but gathering that information took time.

“We can’t just stroll up and have all the facts already,” he said.

But Justice Eiden, IUSA chief of student affairs and safety, said information about location should have been communicated more quickly between IUPD and BPD. He said location was among basic information that was left out of the original notification.

“We need to know location,” Eiden said. “Students need to know which areas they should seek shelter.”

He said he understands that officers may have wanted to make sure the information was accurate before sending it out. But he said IU should have sent out the information and told students the investigation was ongoing and details may change.

Birch said people may hear about an incident on campus, but most never think it could happen near them. As a result, people don’t know how to react and don’t take precautions until they know the location.

“It would’ve been good to let people who were in imminent danger know that they were in imminent danger,” she said. “And it would’ve put people who weren't more at ease."

During the half hour between the first two notifications, Niersbach said students did not know where to go. Students walking on campus didn’t know if they were going toward or away from a shooter, he said.

"There was a lot of confusion,” he said. "People were probably just standing there unsure where to go and what to do.”

Eiden said it’s important to give the full story, including the location, when sending information to thousands of students, parents and residents.

He said he was also concerned about IU and IUPD using the phrase “active shooter situation” without explaining that the incident was an armed robbery as opposed to a mass shooter.

“When I heard ‘active shooter,’ my mind went straight to a gunman on campus targeting students, and that was a scary thought,” Eiden said.

When she saw the first notification, Birch said she pictured someone walking around campus with a rifle pointed at students. She imagined someone walking through the streets, picking students off one by one.

“No one said it was a robbery,” she said. “I thought there was someone walking my street with a gun, and it was scary.”

Birch said IU students have grown up hearing stories in the news about mass shootings. When the first notification was sent out, it opened up the possibility that something similar could happen at IU. Instead of thinking about the possibility of an armed robbery, students probably thought about mass shootings, she said.

“Those 30 minutes were terrifying to a lot of students,” she said. “There was the chance it could’ve been something really, really bad.”

Niersbach said he understands why the incident was called an active shooter situation if it was to make sure the entire campus was on alert.

Birch said she knows putting out too much information too quickly can get in the way of an ongoing investigation, but that does not change the fact that people were terrified.

But Munroe pointed to a different reason for using the phrase “active shooter situation.” He said IUPD has templates for IU Notify updates so that they can be sent out quickly.

Munroe said the supervisor in charge had to choose a template that fit the situation. After looking through the templates, the supervisor realized there was no template that perfectly fit a situation in which shots were fired on campus after an armed robbery.

Munroe said that's where the supervisor had to make a judgment call. When none of the templates fit perfectly, he chose the one he thought worked best.

“The supervisor was working rapidly to get everything out in a timely matter,” he said. “The system was used how it was supposed to be used.”

Eiden said the decision still caused unnecessary terror for students and parents, and the phrase was still more inflammatory than it needed to be.

Munroe said IUPD officials will meet to review the decision to call the incident an active shooter situation.

“If we decide it misled people, we’ll address it and fix it," Munroe said.

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