By Arrica Wynn
Panic gripped Georgia Gwinnett College on Monday, Nov. 17 at 10:51 a.m. as cell phones buzzed and sirens echoed through the hallways. Some students and faculty locked doors, turned out lights, and hid behind tables when the emergency communication system RAVE Alert warned that a violent crime occurred on campus.
The original Rave alert read, “CAMPUS ON LOCKDOWN: A violent crime has just occurred on campus that has caused campus police to close the campus. All staff and students are to shelter in place. Follow instructions from police and building staff. Be ready to move quickly when instructed. Go to the main GGC website for more information.”
According to the Gwinnett Daily Post, a 911 call at 9:37 a.m. started the panic in Lawrenceville and police arrived at Greens Hillcrest apartments, located less than a mile from the GGC campus, to find Vanessa Soyer, 47, dead from apparent multiple gunshot wounds. The shooter was allegedly traveling in the direction of the GGC campus.
Students, faculty, and staff anxiously awaited direction from police who calmly and quickly directed individuals to shelter. Hundreds sought information on the school website and the server load caused the website to crash, adding to the fear level of those trapped on campus. “Website is down, how will the students know what to do?” said Jackie Price-Thornton, a student at GGC. The GGC Facebook moderator responded with, “We will update social media channels when we have updated information.”
The vague and misleading details reported by the Rave system worried students and parents the most, with the Nov. 14 Paris attacks still fresh in everyone’s mind. “If this is ‘just’ a search for a man who murdered his wife … you could save people from a lot of panic and anxiety simply by making that known,” said Joselyn Schutz, from Dacula, to the GGC administration Monday. “It’s not good no matter how it turns out, but you’re making a bad situation worse if this is domestic and you’re not telling folks.”
“I was talking to my friend about the horror of the Paris attacks when the sirens went off … We both jumped and ran to our cars. Everyone was so scared,” said Jessica Wylie, 25, a junior at GGC.
Students quickly locked classroom doors or barricaded tables in front of doors that had no working locks. Unlucky students trapped outside of buildings huddled in their cars, their presence apparent as eyes peeked through car windows and steam shrouded their faces.
“I don’t understand why our doors don’t have locks. There are always school shootings going on yet our school does nothing to educate us on being safe or giving us the tools to do so … I’m sitting in a classroom full of kids with no professor and a few wimpy tables against the door. I feel super safe!” said Lesleigh Henschel on GGC’s Facebook page just minutes after the sirens started.
“There are tons of kids walking outside but no one has come to dismiss us. We have not heard from any officials since the lockdown started. Does GGC even care? Not only can we not lock our doors, but there are also no officials walking around … No one knows anything. I feel so unprotected,” said Henschel.
The original Rave alert said the violent shooting had occurred “on campus” and was later corrected to say “near campus”. “That miscommunication on top of a lack of updates and details is dangerous,” said Olga Gonzalez. “If they had the time to make a status on Facebook they could have copied and pasted the rest of the pertinent details as well. There is no excuse. That is poor crisis management.”
Worried parents searched online for updated information, sending prayers for the students and comforting each other on social media. “My baby is 19 and she is there too,” said Debbie Willard-Smith, Winder native and mother of GGC student Lindsey Smith. “I’m freaking out too.”
“We are good,” said Lindsey Smith on social media to calm her mother. “We are just crushed into a room. They are not updating us. They are just doing this to ensure the shooter does not come to GGC to hide from the cops.” Parents became aware of the potential danger their social media comments could be putting their children in by announcing student’s specific buildings and hiding locations, including A building’s lack of door locks.
“How about you don’t post where they are!!! Hallway or basement! Hello, they are suppose to be hiding,” said Laura Fulton, a previous GGC student, on the GGC Facebook page.
Others who happened to be on campus were caught by surprise like Dhanapati Khatiwoda who graduated in May 2015 and was only on campus to take the GACE test, which is a certification for educators. Khatiwoda had to seek help from Carlton “Buck” Buchanan, Director of Emergency Management, because he had to leave campus in order to pick up his three year old son from preschool.
“I am afraid to leave during lockdown,” said Khatiwoda, but his duty as a father outweighed any fear of leaving before the threat had passed. “I have to pick him up, and I have to go to work right after that so I can’t stay.”
“Do you have any other recourse here?” asked Buchanan, “You have to pick him up, nobody else can do it?” Buchanan assured Khatiwoda that he would contact campus police to make sure Khatiwoda could get to his car safely.
Buchanan mentioned that he wanted to be extra careful since he didn’t know anything more than the students did about the threat to campus At 1:17 p.m., the GGC campus remained on lockdown with police and canine units systematically clearing campus buildings and directing students to their cars.
Rave alerts continued to update on the lockdown status on campus. Several gun safety concerns were raised by students. “Anyone can bring a gun on campus and we are a gun free zone,” said Gabriela Katona, a junior at GGC. “I think it’s bogus and we need to be prepared to be able to protect ourselves. Seconds matter when police are minutes away.”
“All professors need to discuss procedures in all classes this week in case something of this magnitude or worse happens again,” said Kelly Okosi. “Locks should be installed on the inside of all classroom doors and students need to know to stay silent, locked in and away from windows until police unlock the doors.”
As of 9:09 a.m. on November 17, police announced the shooter was located in a wooded area near the intersection of Sugarloaf Parkway at Old Norcross Road and taken into custody. The GGC campus resumed normal operations with an “all clear” from Stas Preczewski, President of GGC.
“After consultation with the appropriate authorities, the security risk to campus has been mitigated to an extent that allows for reopening,” said Preczewski. “However, in coordination with city and county law enforcement, GGC Campus Police has emplaced heightened security measures and physical presence across the campus, increasing their numbers. Expect to see various police vehicles around the campus for days to come.”
“Extended periods of lockdown in tight quarters carry their own unique challenges given the size and range of issues associated with a community of 13,000,” said Preczewski. “I could not be more proud. The safety and security of the GGC community remain the very top priority for this administration.”