Mississippi State University officials say the school’s instant warning system, crisis action team and emergency policies functioned correctly and timely during Saturday’s shooting incident despite its outcome.
University officials said the school prepared for a campus shooting event as a part of its crisis preparedness measures through four on-campus shooting drills from 2007 to 2010. MSU Dean of Students Thomas Bourgeois said the drills simulated a random dormitory shooting incident, a dorm hostage situation, a shooting scenario set at Davis Wade Stadium and a scenario which mimicked an interruption of emergency communications.
Bill Kibler, MSU vice president for student affairs, said the scenarios involved university police officers, campus communication agents and staged actors.
“We plan for emergencies on campus and have planned similar scenarios, but you always hope you never have to put them place,” Kibler said. “(The university) would be remiss if we didn’t assume (a shooting incident) is something that couldn’t happen.”
A 911 call placed at 9:54 p.m. alerted MSU officials to the shooting of 21-year-old John D. Sanderson at Evans Hall Saturday. Kibler said an officer arrived at the dormitory one minute later, followed by paramedics from OCH Regional Hospital. Sanderson, who was shot twice, was transported to the hospital and declared deceased at 11:03 p.m.
Kibler said the quick response times of officers and medical responders should be commended.
“We had excellent work by our police and paramedics staff,” Kibler said. “We were satisfied that the emergency response processes at MSU worked.”
While emergency responders were racing to Evans Hall, dispatchers also contacted Bourgeois, the on-call representative of the MSU Crisis Action Team. Kibler said the team always makes available one on-call representative each month to monitor and share information as any situation unfolds.
A call was then placed to Kibler, and he and others began calling members of the crisis action team to campus. Kibler served as incident commander for the night’s event and made the decision to open the crisis command center.
The crisis action team contains campuswide representatives from numerous MSU departments, and Kibler said each situation dictates who is called in for an event. During Saturday’s emergency, Kibler said representatives from MSU’s police department, president’s office, housing department, student affairs division, information technology department and academic affairs were present at the command center. A housing official was also at Evans Hall, and another official was posted at OCH Regional Medical Center, Kibler said. Officials remained at the crisis center through 3:30 a.m. Sunday.
Kibler said he authorized the use of MSU’s Maroon Alert emergency notification system at 10:23 p.m. The system includes emergency status updates on the school’s website; instant messages, text messages and emails to university students and employees; Twitter and Facebook posts; and announcements on WMSV, the MSU campus radio station.
“We have directed considerable time and resources toward creating and fine-tuning response plans that can be activated quickly in an emergency. Those protocols worked well this past weekend, and the Maroon Alert system was a key component in that response,” MSU President Mark Keenum said. “The (MSU) Crisis Action Team initiated these alerts, which enabled us to communicate directly with students, faculty and staff as events unfolded. The CAT uses a comprehensive array of resources to provide information in a crisis, including the social media and our MSU website, but none is more important than the capability provided through our Maroon Alert channels to get the word out.”
The first Maroon Alert alert was sent four minutes after authorization and announced a shooting or stabbing had occurred at Evans Hall.
“(The initial report) was based on what we knew then, which was a student had been shot or stabbed — that wasn’t clear at the time — and it appeared to be a very serious injury,” Kibler said. “We were able to gather our information, compose the message and push the button quickly.”
MSU’s website was updated with a yellow emergency banner which alerted visitors to minute-by-minute updates as they were learned by university officials. Besides normal operating conditions — green — and emergencies, Bourgeois said the website also displays advisory messages with a blue banner when the appropriate time calls. Bourgeois said the color code system only uses blue and yellow in special circumstances to clearly inform the public.
After Sanderson was transported from the residence hall to the hospital, officials said the MSUPD investigation went into full swing. Surveillance footage taken from Evans Hall provided authorities with their first glimpse at three possible suspects who fled the scene by vehicle. Investigators relayed the information to the crisis action team, and a second Maroon Alert was issued.
“We were looking to gather information to see what this (situation) is and if it was accidental or on purpose. It didn’t take long (to understand) because (officials) talked to witnesses shortly after the incident. We were able to discern very quickly … within a few moments that this had been inflicted pretty quickly,” Kibler said. “We were pretty sure that this was a gunshot because we had (witnesses) say they heard shots. We had access to information showing that those who did this were seen fleeing.”
Officials sent a third Maroon Alert which confirmed the shooting, acknowledged Sanderson’s death and reiterated police were looking for three suspects.
Kibler said MSU’s current emergency management system was developed in 2005 after a tornado struck campus, although he said many believe the system was developed in reaction to the shooting incident at Virginia Tech. Kibler said the Virginia Tech tragedy allowed college campuses across the nation to reexamine their emergency procedures.
Since 2007, Bourgeois said the university has held 24 drills and initiated emergency advisories 41 times. Most of those advisories were due to weather-releated events, Kibler and Bourgeois said.
“We had some systems in place to respond to emergencies (in 2005), but it was our experience out of (our) event that caused the institution to go forward and establish a more integrated and elaborate emergency response system, improve (employees’) training and establish our current policies,” Kibler said. “We try to spend our time and energy (preparing for) the tragic incidents that have the greatest likelihood of happening. We prepare for a wide range of events, but that’s why we spent a lot of time on tornados and weather-related events.”
Any time the university issues a Maroon Alert, Bourgeois said, officials take into account the current situation and the need to promptly inform students, employees and the general public.
“We’ve had incidents we’ve reported that were eventually determined to be hoaxes,” Kibler said. “You might even have clear indications that something might not be real when you first get reports, but unless (we) get irrefutable information, we’re going to notify the campus. We’ll err on the side of safety even if we have doubts. That can create unrest, concern and consternation that you get when a report turns out to not be true, but we’d rather be safe than not alert our students.”