After two mass shootings in TX this year: how is UT Tyler protecting its students from gun violence?
Claire Wallace • Editor-in-Chief
In Spring 2017, UT Tyler’s emergency system was accidentally set off by an employee, sending out an active shooter alert to every student and faculty’s cell phone and email. The alert warned people of a shooter in the Biology Education and Psychology building, but panic increased as misinformation spread across campus about the supposed shooter’s whereabouts. Students heard books hit the floor in the nursing building and believed it to be gunshots; another student received texts from a friend about a shooter in Ratliff Building North.
“I was like, ‘at some point in my life, I’m going to be involved in a school shooting,’” biology student Elizabeth Boshers said, who recounted her experience of the false alert. “I think it was my freshman year because I was like, ‘I didn’t think it was going to happen this early.’”
Boshers recalls that someone banged on their classroom’s door in RBN, scaring the students.
“Everyone in that room was like, ‘we’re going to die,’” Bosher said. “We were convinced. So we paused, and no one breathed. Then we could hear footsteps running down the hall, and we were like, ‘Oh my God’ and texting our moms and stuff.”
While the alert was accidentally sent from an app that the university no longer uses and there was no shooter on campus, the incident was indicative of a national safety concern: a person with a gun and an intent to cause harm.
According to a database by Everytown, a gun safety support fund, there have been 17 gun-related incidents on Texas college campuses since 2013, 10 of which resulted in injury or death to at least one person. Statistics vary on how likely it is for students to be involved in campus shootings; the numbers vary from one in 424 for any given college to one in 2 million.
But after two mass shootings in Texas this year and an arrest of a UT Tyler student who threatened customers and employees with a gun at the Troup Hwy Walmart, students are asking: Could it happen here?
“Anything could happen anywhere at any time,” Chief Mike Medders, the university’s chief of police, said. “UT Tyler's not exempt from that. We historically have a safe campus. We want to keep it [like] that, but we’re not going to bury our head in the sand and say it can’t happen here because we know it can.”
Medders says that “active shooter prevention, mitigation, response, [and] recovery is the number one thing” the school’s 14 police officers and 11 security guards thinks about. In their view, the best way to protect students is to make sure a shooting never happens.
“Prevention is key,” said Medders. “We don’t want it to happen to start with.”
Medders helps to train students and faculty on the See Something, Say Something policy, where people are encouraged to report any suspicious activity on campus, from strange behavior to unfamiliar cars.
“We depend on the students, the staff, the faculty, to be our eyes and ears. We’re going to be out there, but there's a lot more of y’all than there are of us,” Medders said. “We’d rather come out a thousand times and it be nothing than to miss the one time, had we had that vital piece of information, [that] we could have prevented something.”
UT Tyler also has software that monitors social media for any suspicious behavior or certain keywords. “Clips” of troubling posts are sent daily to be reviewed by the appropriate staff.
“Another thing I’d like to see on campus is a better way to keep track of people who everyone is like, ‘Yeah, they’re going to do something. They’re the type of person who would do something,’” Boshers said.
Currently, the Campus Assessment Response and Evaluation team fills this role. CARE is a multidisciplinary team, comprised of representatives from UT Tyler’s Judicial Affairs, Residence Life, Counseling, Student Success, and police departments. Its sole purpose is to identify people on campus who are having emotional or behavioral issues that might mark them as a “significant risk.”
“We try to intervene before things get serious,” Medders said. “We do a behavioral assessment on each student that comes into contact as a subject with the team. They’re gonna have to go to counseling, we’re gonna have to get a lot of things going on, and get coordinated, to make sure they don't escalate their behavior.”
Despite all the preventions and preparations they university does, including gathering intel from “every three-letter federal agency you can imagine” on shooter’s “habits, tendencies, [and] pre-incidences,” Medders understands that there’s always the possibility for the worst to happen. That’s why he and his team consistently run active shooter drills.
People are chosen to act either as witnesses, victims, or the shooter. UT Tyler police officers go in “completely blind” to the situation, without knowing what’s waiting for them. The officers have to go through different scenarios, anywhere from the shooter giving up, confronting the shooter directly, or having the shooter take their own life.
These practice sessions are a way to keep their skills sharp, especially their Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training.
“Under the ALERRT system, we go straight for the sound of the gunshots,” says Medders. “That is our mission at that point; to locate the shooter and neutralize the shooter, and that’s what we do. Whether it’s one officer or six, we’re going in, immediately.”
The UT Tyler police force is also outfitted with patrol rifles, ballistic helmets and vests, breaching tools, and even an armored rescue vehicle.
While the campus police are ready to confront an active shooter, Medders puts an emphasis on making sure that students, faculty and staff are as well.
The UT Tyler police department hopes to teach all students to protect themselves if an active shooter situation ever happened, so they teach a “Run, Hide, Fight” system. Run away from the threat if it’s safe. Hide in locked rooms and barricade the doors. Fight as a last resort.
In the event of an emergency, the police can get to any side of campus within three minutes. In those minutes, Medders says, people have to do “whatever it takes.”
“You’re gonna have to stay alive, and it’s you or him in that situation,” Medders said. “You have to have a survival mentality at that point that you’re going to win, and you’re going to go home.”
These protocols are typically presented at orientations, and through emails from the police department throughout the semester. But, Medders said, outreach is something campus police hope to get better at.
“We’re going to be more effective if we can get student groups who want us to present it to them,” Medders said. “That’s what we really want. We put on active shooter presentations regularly. We’ve already got 31 scheduled for this semester with staff and faculty. We want to do the same for student groups.”
Many students have questions about how safe their campus is, and not just in terms of what police can do, but what type of physical protection their buildings provide. Boshers raised worries over the amount of glass in the new Soules College of Business building.
“I remember when it was first completed and we all walked through it, that was one of the first things my friend said to me,” Boshers said. “If [there’s] an active shooter in there, and those windows aren’t bulletproof, everybody’s gonna die.”
Medders said that while there are physical barriers and other protective measures in buildings across campus, the police department can’t reveal too much about their extent.
“We want people to know we’re prepared, but we can’t go into real specific details about how we prepare and the tactics we use in those situations,” Medders said. “Anytime we put out information, we’re talking to any potential shooters out there.”
Medders’s defined the police’s mission as providing an environment where people “can be without fear.” But, for Boshers, an active shooter seems inevitable.
“I’m still very convinced it’s going to happen at one of my schools for real sometime,” Boshers said. “I’m sure for the older generation, that’s not a fear that’s really on their minds as much. They’ve been through schools. So if it’s happening at the schools now, it doesn’t really affect them that much.”
The campus police, though, are committed to making UT Tyler as safe as possible, and ask those on campus to “leave the worrying” to them.
“Our officers know that their job is to save lives, and every one of our officers is ready to do that,” says Medders. “Our officers are ready to put themselves in the middle of the situation to protect others. That’s what we do now, and that’s what we’ll always do.”
Watch for our next installment of the “Gun safety on Campus” series: a look at student’s opinions on campus carry laws.