The first sign was the noise. In an instant, a stampede began in Verna & Peter Dauterive Hall. All we heard were feet striking the ground above and all around us.
Seconds later, a man burst into our classroom and shouted, “There’s an active shooter. Run.”
Our professor told us to leave everything behind and run out a side door. Students jumped over tables and lost shoes in the chaos.
In that moment, I had no information. For all I knew, any corner I turned could lead straight into gunfire.
The only certain thing was that I could have died at any moment.
As soon as I got out the door, I had a sickening realization: In all the “Run, Hide, Fight” active shooter training, they never told us where to run.
One instant will be burned into my memory forever. In half a second, I had to decide whether to shelter in a nearby building or keep running. It could have been a life-or-death decision, and I was thrust into it utterly blind.
The University of Southern California’s emergency preparedness policies failed me and every other student and faculty member in VPD, a building right next to Fertitta Hall, on Monday, October 2, 2017. Though the incident thankfully was a false alarm, the problems it exposed on campus are real.
The university’s generic “Run, Hide, Fight” guidance ignores the important, distinct vulnerabilities facing each building on campus. To address this issue, USC should require room-specific emergency procedures be posted in every classroom on campus and that professors review emergency preparedness procedures with students during the first class meeting.
VPD, for example, is one of the newer buildings on campus. It is a striking, impressive and modern building designed to feature an open floor plan and a flood of natural light.
However, the building is nearly impossible to secure in an active shooter situation because of glass windows and doors and its open central staircase. During the shooting scare, we were essentially stuck in a fishbowl with nowhere to hide. Our only choice was to run.
The best practices for an active shooter situation in VPD would be different than in a more secure building, but the current emergency protocol does not account for that. Even now, it is not clear where students in VPD should have gone. Should we have run to shelter in a nearby secure building like the law school? Or run as far away as we could as fast as we could?
Further, when DPS issued an alert nearly five minutes after we began sprinting for our lives, they told students to shelter in place. What happened to the first option being to run? Is the “run” directive limited to glass cubes and people in the immediate vicinity of the shooter, or does it apply to all students?
These questions, though they may vary in each situation, are based on general principles that are certainly possible to prepare for. Students need at least general guidance for an escape plan for each classroom each semester.
I am not suggesting that the university should turn our campus buildings into military bunkers, but there are concrete steps USC should take to make our buildings more secure.
For one, the university should install blinds or film on the windows and doors of vulnerable classrooms to ensure there is some way to hide in the event of an active shooter.
Second, students must have the option to override the electronic locks on doors and manually lock doors in every classroom. Waiting to lock doors until building administration is notified by authorities could cost lives in a true emergency.
Most importantly, USC must require professors to discuss active shooter protocol every semester in class so students have the best information they can to protect themselves in an emergency.
Stronger planning is essential. When a safety discussion begins with a man running into your classroom screaming about an active shooter, it’s too late.