…or is it horror? I don’t know. I can’t remember right now.
Today, San Jose State made the news, but this time, not for Audacity, MOOC/MOCs, or the like. Today, at 9:22am, we received a text and email alert from the SJSU Police:
Man with gun call — police checking Sweeney Hall — shelter in place.
SJSU lives in the middle of downtown San Jose. Though the area has been revitalized, we often hear about robberies, assaults, and other crimes from the SJSU Alert system that was installed about 5 or 6 years ago. I get a text directly to my phone and an email follow-up.
Today, though, I was in the middle of talking about Jack in The Shining, interior complexity, isolation, psychological breakdowns, and Robert Walton from Frankenstein — when 3 armed policemen entered my classroom without saying a word. One was armed with a rifle and all three were wearing bullet-proof vests. The scene was surreal, especially considering that we had just completed a section in the prior week on one of the most violence novels I’ve ever taught, American Psycho. The police officers were swift with their movements and walked among my students and briefly paused to tell me that a report had been confirmed of a gunman who had entered the building. Everyone should “shelter in place.”
Ok. Will do.
Apparently, students had seen police activity around the campus when they were coming to class around 9am. At 9:22am, the police officially issued the warning.
At first, my room of senior and junior English majors were chatty, unfazed by the events. We crowd-sourced the prompt for Tuesday’s blog post (due by 9am!) and discussed the role of a child, Danny, in The Shining. Another student referenced Reddit’s “best horror books.” And a good discussion proceeded about the inadequacy and maturity of all the characters. The events unfolding still seemed unreal to us.
In between discussions, I called the department office to let the admin know that I was in this particular building. (Many of the English Department’s courses run in this building, so many of our faculty were teaching a 9am class in this location.) I then alerted students to the location of the stairwell (just to the right at the end of the hall) and advised them of standard protocols for exiting the building. Now, these were earthquake protocols, not lockdown/gunman protocols.
What the hell was I supposed to do? [Edited: We have a "shelter-in-place" preparedness memo. Quite sobering. But I've never seen it before today]
I tweeted (colleagues and students)
report of person walking into my building w/a gun. police just went thru my full classroom w/rifles checking for that person.
we’ve been instructed to remain in our rooms until we get a text alert with the all-clear. (frigging scary, but students seem okay)
students asked if I arrange this as a prank (it’s the gothic novel/horror course). No! NOT A DRILL. Food & You. stay out of Sweeney for now
and posted to Facebook (family and friends)
report of person walking into my building w/a gun. police just went thru my full classroom w/rifles checking for that person. we’ve been instructed to remain in our rooms until we get a text alert with the all-clear. (frigging scary, but students seem okay)
and texted (close friends)
My social networks kept me calm so I could remain calm with my students.
Since we’re in a fully wired classroom, we found our building on NBC live local news and could hear the helicopter outside above us. I received a second SJSU Alert text at 10:07am. Some students never received that first text. So we began to share information, quietly.
Report of a white male adult wearing all black clothes in Sweeney Hall was seen possibly carrying a handgun in his waist band. The building is being searched by police. If in Sweeney Hall shelter in place. All others stay out of the immediate area. The rest of campus is open for business.
Everyone moved to the back of the room and remained quiet. We placed 2 tables near the door to impede an intruder. (Another faculty member in a different room tied a power cord around the hinge at the top of the door. Since our doors open out to the hallway and have no locks, this would have kept anyone from opening the door from the outside.)
I took a position at the front of the room so I could see the window in the door and if there was anyone trying to get in. I usually use a standing lectern on wheels to conduct my class sessions, so I sat behind that and figured that I could at least ram anyone who continued to get through the door and the tables. We wanted to leave the tables in a position where we could get out quickly if we needed to. The windows of our 4th floor room lack screens, so I opened one hoping that there was an eave or a half roof that we could escape to if we really needed it. The blank wall gave no indication of being scaled, even for this seasoned trad lead climber. In hindsight, I should have covered the window on the door — that prospect would have left us blind, though.
We were stuck.
…and that’s when I started to swallow some rising panic.
The only instructions I could dream up were to flip the tables and get behind them if someone tried to enter the room.
I mentally reviewed emergency first aid procedures from a backcountry wilderness course I’d taken years ago.
To quell my panic, I drew on years of leading trad climbs in The Gunks, a 300 foot cliffband just outside of New York City. During those days, I could be 200 feet up on the side of a cliff, 20 feet above my last piece of gear, and looking around for something, anything to place in the rock. At those moments when sweat would starting pouring down my back and cause my hands to become sweaty and slippery, I had no choice but to calm down. Singing. Relaxing my arms. Talking to my partner. Anything to get out of my head.
Today, I texted, Facebooked, tweeted and was returned reassurances , good wishes, even ideas for barricading the door. My aunt returned some encouraging words (and may have alerted my father, brother, and stepmother to the events, which would have caused a bit more stress for me because there’s nothing they could do from so far away).
As a triathlete, former rock climber, former dancer, and academic, I’m no stranger to stress and difficult situations. But, I’m usually alone in these scenarios. Twenty-six students looked to me to be calm. I asked them to sign a sheet with their full names and email addresses just in case I needed to….well, to verify that they were in the room. You know, just in case.
I think I did okay.
But, the 100 or so other people who responded to my tweets, texts, and Facebook posts sang, relaxed, talked to help me get out of my head. For a little while, I played various videos (with no sound), including the latest meme for “What the Fox Say (WTF),” a silly song by a Norwegian band that has, for some reason, gone viral. We even contemplated learning the dance moves until it was clear that we needed to be very quiet.
At 10:56am, over an hour after the first SJSU Alert, we received:
A thorough search of Sweeney Hall did not reveal anything. Sweeney Hall is open for business. Resume normal activity.
We removed the tables, discussed if they should go to their next classes, smiled, and filed out of the room. My next class in the same room was, of course, cancelled. Office hours this afternoon are just distracted waiting while I go over my memories of the moments.
The University Police offer a shooter preparedness seminar. I’m wondering why the entire university population hasn’t already received this seminar or been offered the opportunity (a department needs to request the seminar). The department admin had as little information as the rest of us and did her best to get information to us in the building (via email and phone calls).
Some triathlete pals have already organized an afternoon trail run at my favorite park to close out the day and these memories.
I’d like a donut now, please.