You should come up with something that closely resembles the scene on the Citrus College campus Feb. 20, when a report of an armed suspect in the Student Services building at approximately 4:45 p.m. led to a two-city police response and an eventual campus closure more than two hours later.
No gunman was found, and students on campus seemed initially more curious than concerned. However, that curiosity turned into frustration and confusion when miscommunication and a hurried evacuation left many stationary in the school parking lots for up to 45 minutes.
The situation began at 4:27 p.m., when an Azusa Pacific University student called 911 to report an African-American male walking northbound on Citrus Avenue with a bulge in his jacket pocket that resembled a handgun. Azusa Police Department officials notified APU’s Campus Safety department of the report.
At 4:44 p.m., an APU Campus Safety officer saw an individual matching the description walk into the Citrus College Student Services building.
At 4:46 p.m., Citrus College’s Campus Safety department was notified and the building was immediately placed on lockdown while officers from the Glendora and Azusa police departments established a 200-foot perimeter in preparation for a search.
Employees in the building were placed in designated safe rooms as Glendora police officers searched the facility. At approximately 6:45 p.m., officers concluded their search and issued an all-clear. Via word-of-mouth, classes were canceled around 7 p.m. A Citrus Alert was then issued at 7:18 p.m., stating, “Due to an incident on campus, classes are canceled tonight and the campus is closed.”
By comparison, APU’s Campus Safety issued its own campus alert at 6:16 p.m., notifying students and staff that Citrus College was in a lockdown state due to “a suspicious person on their campus who may be armed with a handgun.”
Meanwhile, Citrus students and staff on campus received updates on the unfolding situation from social media, news outlets and acquaintances. No update from Citrus College made any mention of a search for an armed individual on campus property.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” said 19-year-old sociology major Larissa Angulo, who was moved into a storage room with 28 other counseling department employees while police conducted their search. “Not even the counselors knew. Nobody was letting us know.”
Students and professors arriving for the first evening classes of the semester were also treated to mixed messages.
The Twitter page for Citrus College’s Campus Safety department (@CitrusCollegeCS) posted “Classes are NOT cancelled” at 6:50 p.m. However, some students caught wind of class cancelations as early as 6:30 p.m.
“I was pulling into the [S3] parking lot when a Campus Safety [officer] stopped me,” said Krystal Haddadin, a 19-year-old swimmer. “He said no one could park there and I was going to have to find another parking spot, and—these are his words— ‘As far as I know, classes are canceled.’”
According to campus officials, an abundance of misinformation played a key role in shutting down the college for the night.
“Rumors were kind of getting out of control. The decision was made in the best interests of everyone on the campus,” said dean of students Martha McDonald. “People started receiving calls about ‘Oh my god, there’s this,’ or ‘Oh my God, there’s that,’ and so we knew that was going to make matters worse.”
Asked if it would have been accurate to say that Glendora police officers were searching the Student Services building for a possible gunman, McDonald disagreed.
“That’s not the information we had at the time,” McDonald said. “If we’re going to send out a message or something like that, we need to provide accurate information. That wouldn’t have been accurate information, in my opinion. I understand people are thinking things should’ve been done one way or things should’ve been done another way, [but] my priority, my primary concern was the safety of those people in that building and that’s where we were focusing our energy.”
McDonald did say that there is room for the college to improve in emergency-type situations, but did not go into specifics. She also said that the campus is preparing an emergency preparedness forum, and expects attendance to be high.
For Haddadin though, a forum may not be enough.
“To better inform their students, [the campus] should better inform themselves,” Haddadin said. “I was very disappointed that I had to spend a half a tank driving back and forth just to find out if my classes were canceled and I couldn’t get a straight answer.”