Part I: Prof: ‘I don’t want you to get shot’
For Julie Odell, one thing was immediately obvious: a gun was involved.
“It was halfway through class and I got this e2campus alert [on my phone] to stay in the building, and that police were conducting a search. So, I knew right away that there was a gunman,” says the Community College of Philadelphia associate professor of English. “Once I got that message, I didn’t want to open my door. I let my students know and,”—she pauses—“it was very weird.”
The Center City, Philadelphia campus was locked down for about 45 minutes yesterday afternoon after reports of a gunman on campus. Police say 23-year-old Ryan Fitch entered a chemistry classroom and confronted a classmate, displayed a handgun, then fled the school.
During that confusing time, rumors spread from building to building, though traditional and social media, and word of mouth, as to what had gone on. For many, this immediately brought to mind last week’s University of California, Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger, whose much-publicized rampage killed six people, and himself.
Odell says her situation brought the Newtown, Connecticut massacre to mind, largely because although she was in the middle of the situation that kept much of the city’s attention during mid-day, she was scared, had little idea as to what was going on, and still had to keep her students calm throughout the process.
“I kept thinking the whole time about the shooting in Connecticut,” she says. “Just being barricaded in the classroom; it was horrible. Kids would get up and go towards the door [and] just to be telling a student that I don’t want you to get shot— we didn’t know what the circumstance was … The text alerts weren’t saying anything. They weren’t saying 'gunman at large.' I only knew that because I had social media.”
News of yesterday’s situation at Community College of Philadelphia may have gotten to me before most media in the city. For the past three years, I’ve taught English courses there as an adjunct professor. I have numerous friends at the college. My fiancé is a full-time instructor there. We got the campus alert via cell phone at 12:23pm.
When all was said and done, no shots were fired. Police never considered this an “active shooter” situation. But when Kelly Walsh and Joe Staffeiri showed up for class, the second-year nursing students were completely baffled.
“We were going into the West Building and we ran into a SWAT officer,” Walsh says with an awkward laugh. “He directed us down the escalators and to go right out.”
Describing the officer as having a “full, automatic rifle,” he “sounded very much like a SWAT guy from the movies,” she says. “He was very authoritative…but he seemed very relaxed as he let us out.”
Walsh and Staffeiri said they asked students and faculty outside the campus’ buildings what was going on, and no one knew.
And that lack of knowledge led some students to spread rumors.
“There were people in the hallways saying, like, someone’s got a gun, someone shot somebody, it could be a bomb,” adds Staffeiri.
“Yeah, no one knew what was going on. There was Homeland Security, SWAT was here, police, ambulances, fire engines, we didn’t know what was going on,” agrees Walsh.
Thing is, if the school is going to send out a campus alert, it cannot be specific as to what the threat keeping everyone in their classroom actually is. Those messages go out to everybody, including, potentially, a shooter on campus—and specificity could put more people at risk.
English instructor Jeff Markovitz, who is currently studying for the summer across the state, followed the incident via social and traditional media throughout the day. “I had a few students email me making sure I was OK,” he says. “The whole thing, especially studying so far away, made me realize how proud I am of my school and how little control I have in protecting it against the vulnerabilities of contemporary society.”
But for most students and faculty on campus, and locked in classrooms as the buildings were searched, the feeling seems to have been a general nervous optimism, and, perhaps, inevitability.
“For years I’ve known we were going to have an incident, because how could we not? We’re such a big school, such a big city. But I never thought we’d have a rampage killer; and, in fact, when it was happening, even though I was thinking about Sandy Hook, I just knew in my heart that it was just something petty,” adds Odell. “Kids bring guns to school. That’s just a given. Our kids are involved in so much stuff, and we don’t have metal detectors. It’s inevitable that there are guns on campus.”
Part II : Campus news editor reports from inside lockdown
The dim stress that goes into a summer session, 3-credit film class quickly elevated on Wednesday afternoon as one of my fellow students read a text announcing what was going on: Reports of a man on campus with a weapon. What kind of weapon? That wasn’t yet known. Lots of things weren’t yet known.
We first got the word around 12:15pm. We hunkered down in our classroom and searched for answers on Twitter, Facebook and CCP’s website. Word soon started to spread quickly through social media that that weapon was a gun. Two text notices sent out shortly after instructed those still on campus to take shelter and await further instructions.
Twitter posts from fellow students showed pictures of their efforts to secure their classroom doors with desks, chairs and storage closets. I felt that the two professors and my seven fellow students were safe behind what I hoped were our computer lab’s locked and solid metal doors. The professors did what they could to secure them shut before our professor took advantage of the situation and used to it to crack jokes.
“I’ll have to give this lecture again,” my professor joked after seeing a few us distracted by smart phones and Twitter feeds. We waited in anticipation as local news outlets spread the word.
Around 1pm, CBS Philly wrote on Twitter that police were stressing there was no active shooter on campus. Without revealing our location, I tweeted this out to my small audience of 78 followers that whatever SWAT officers were on campus, but had not reached our class, yet.
A student wrote at 1:16pm that the police knew the shooter had left, but were continuing door-to-door as a precaution. We were barricaded inside, but, perhaps, we were safe.
With more and more Twitter comments saying that this was not an active shooter situation, I tweeted at CCP’s main feed: “Are police still searching?”
Surprisingly, I got a response: “Yes, we are still sheltered in place. When that changes, we will post.”
Shortly after, a professor came in to notify us that police wanted us to evacuate. My class vacated immediately. At the bottom of the stairs in the Bonnell lobby I saw the first officers. A Lieutenant informed me that he could not give me any information at that time.
It’s a weird feeling being in the middle of a situation and knowing very little about it. Outside my classroom, near the corner of 17th and Spring Garden, is where the story began to come together through the media reports and bystanders still outside. I learned the suspect in the incident, Ryan Fitch, allegedly confronted another student with a gun in a classroom on the fourth floor of the West Building. No shots were fired and nobody was hurt. The suspect then fled the campus and was apprehended at his Northeast Philadelphia apartment. Philadelphia police and SWAT members and Department of Homeland Security officers responded to 911 calls placed by CCP security and students. The main campus was declared safe by 2:00pm.
Confused CCP community members—faculty, students, and administration—who were still on the scene after 2pm told their stories and explained how they first heard about the incident.
Julia Michaels-Koening, a nursing student, stated in a phone interview that she was on the fourth floor of the West building at the time the incident took place. She said she received the text alert from CCP at 12:24pm followed by two phone calls from fellow students, telling her about the situation in the building. Shortly thereafter she was ushered out of the building by SWAT officers. She stated that she was surprised how unsettled she still was hours after the incident.
“I think it’s mostly because of the SWAT team. I mean they did a great job but when guys with body armor and [large] guns yell at you that you have to get out of the building, it can be unsettling,” said Michaels-Koening.
According to Lynette Brown-Sow of CCP’s Marketing and Government Relations office, the school’s security and emergency response team had conducted drills for this kind of situation and worked smoothly with officers to handle the situation as it unfolded.
“Since I’ve been here at the college, we’ve had different kinds of incidents. We have procedures and we move forward with those procedures,” said Brown-Sow. “I think that [in] all emergencies, you have to handle them in a certain way our policies said we should handle it.”
Thanks to local media reporting that CCP would be closed that day, the administration followed suit around 2:15 and announced that the Main Campus would close. Brown-Sow, for her part, said the school was satisfied by the way the situation was handled.
“No one was hurt. The great thing about the campus is that police are just three blocks away. They get here very quickly, they take control,” she said.
Zachary Mentzer is a student at the Community College of Philadelphia and the editor of CCP’s student newspaper, The Vanguard. Follow him on Twitter: @ZMentzer