Del. college reacts swiftly to shootings

Lesson of Va. Tech brings fast warnings after 2 students hit

September 22, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun reporter

DOVER, Del. -- The word first spread room to room in the dormitories, with resident advisers knocking on doors just after 1 a.m. to announce that two students had just been shot. About an hour later, officials were posting notices on the walls and on the Delaware State University Web site. By 5 a.m., classes for the day had been canceled.

Last spring's shootings at Virginia Tech reverberated hundreds of miles away yesterday in this campus of about 3,700, as school officials cited lessons learned and moved rapidly to try to protect students.

"The biggest lesson we learned from that incident is, don't wait," said Carlos Holmes, a spokesman for Delaware State University.

Police were questioning two "persons of interest" who might have been involved in the shootings, which were reported at 12:54 a.m.

The identities of the two victims were not released, but police said both were 17-year-old students from Washington, D.C.

A female student was shot in the abdomen and remained in serious condition at Christiana Hospital in Newark, Del.

A male student, shot in the leg, was being treated at Kent General Hospital in Dover.

Holmes told reporters that as soon as officials learned of the shootings, residence hall advisers in all six dormitories were instructed to tell their approximately 1,200 students to stay there, a restriction on the 400-acre campus that apparently was not lifted until mid-morning, when they were allowed to go to the cafeteria with escorts.

Special arrangements were made for students wanting to leave campus for the weekend.

"They pretty much followed our guidance," Holmes said. "They understand the lessons of the tragedy earlier this year."

Marked contrast

The actions of campus police and administrators here were in marked contrast with those of law enforcement officers in Blacksburg, Va., on April 16, when Seung-hui Cho killed 32 people and himself in the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

Virginia Tech officials were criticized for not issuing adequate warnings after two students were found dead in a dormitory about 7 a.m.

Police assumed that it was a domestic incident and that the shooter had left the area, and the 2,600-acre campus remained open.

About two hours later, shortly after an e-mail warning had been disseminated, 30 more people were killed and 17 wounded by Cho, who had been fixated on the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado.

James Overton, the Delaware campus police chief, said the two victims yesterday were among a group of eight to 10 students who had left the Village Cafe, a campus eatery, sometime after midnight.

The group dispersed and ended up on a pedestrian mall between the Memorial Hall gymnasium and the Richard S. Grossley Hall administrative building. Overton said one person in the group took out a gun and fired four to six shots, hitting the two victims. The shootings might have been preceded by an argument at the restaurant, officials said.

The male victim declined to answer questions by police about the shootings, raising the likelihood that he knew his attacker, according to a federal law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

University President Allen L. Sessoms emphasized that the shootings were not random.

"This is an internal problem," Sessoms said. "This is just kids who did very, very stupid things."

One student, Alex Bishoff, 20, said he heard five gunshots from his dorm room.

A few minutes later, he said, a resident adviser knocked on every door on the floor.

"It was to keep a count of people," Bishoff said. "That's the point. They went from room to room."

Man seen limping

But Bishoff, a freshman criminal justice student from Washington, said he left his dorm to see what was happening.

"I'm not going to sit in my room like everything's sweet," he said. "I went outside."

He said that he saw the man who had been wounded and that he was limping.

Another student said he heard loud knocking on his door in the early hours by someone asking if he was there, but he did not hear about the shootings until later that morning, when his parents called to tell him they were bringing him home.

Holmes, the university spokesman, said that while campus security officials had discussed establishing a so-called "e-mail blast" warning system, they had not done so. But he said notices were posted in the dorms and around campus.

In addition, the campus "snow line," which normally uses land-line telephones to warn students and staff of weather problems, was activated after yesterday's shootings.

Anyone picking up a campus phone would have heard a warning to stay inside.

"In the first two or three hours, everyone pretty much knew what was going on, except maybe a few who slept through it," Holmes said.

By 5 a.m., with the suspect still at large, officials decided to cancel classes for the day and began alerting faculty, staff and students who live off-campus.

`In harm's way'

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