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Monday, May 20, 2024

Hoax call about active shooter in college library leaves community reeling

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Piper Boss ’23 was working at a carrel in Davis Family Library on Sunday night when she received a text from her friend, Molly Grazioso ’23.5, at 10:41 p.m.

"Theres a shooter. Or something,” Grazioso wrote. “Piper stay where u r. Get udner something now. Now. Im serious please stay where u are. Im with the pilice. Im safe. Can u confirm youre ok?"

While Boss worked in a carrel room on the third floor mezzanine — the highest level of the library — law enforcement officers from the Middlebury Police Department and other agencies from across the state had entered the lower floors of the building. MPD officers arrived at the college library around 10:30 p.m., responding to a 911 call alleging an ongoing shooting and mass casualty incident in the building, according to an MPD press release.

The call has since been identified as a hoax or “swatting call,” a false report in which an individual attempts to get law enforcement to converge on the scene of a fabricated threat.

The college received a call at 10:28 p.m. about a possible active shooter, Director of Public Safety Demitria Kirby said in an email to The Campus. At the time, they were told by law enforcement that “there was a low probability the threat was credible.”

“Middlebury’s Crisis Management Team was actively weighing whether sending a community-wide message at a moment when the unsubstantiated situation might have been localized and contained would cause more harm than good,” Kirby wrote to The Campus.

After the team became aware that information about the incident was spreading throughout campus and beyond, they sent an alert a little before midnight to notify the community that law enforcement was responding and the threat was likely not credible, Kirby added. The message went out after students had already been evacuated from the library, students in the building on Sunday night told The Campus.

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The third floor mezzanine, where Boss and Grazioso were working.

After receiving Grazioso’s text, Boss hid under a desk in the back of the carrel room, waiting for police to find her.

“I just tried to be as quiet and still as possible,” she said. “It took about 30 minutes until they got to my room, and I was just waiting and hiding and hoping that the automatic lights in the room would turn off soon.”

Grazioso, who had been doing work with Boss in the same carrel room, had headed to the bathroom before the two planned to leave the library for the night. She and Grazioso both described hearing yelling from what seemed to be the library lobby, three floors below them, but dismissed it, thinking it might be a student protest or a minor disturbance in the lobby — earlier in the year, a local man had entered the library and loudly proclaimed he was running for president in 2026 before being escorted out of the building.

But as Grazioso rounded the corner of the stairs on her way to the bathroom, she found herself standing above an armed officer in tactical gear on the landing below her.

“I turned the corner of the staircase, and I see that at the bottom of the stairs there’s a woman with a huge, huge gun pointed straight at me,” Grazioso said.

The officer told Grazioso that she needed to come with her, Grazioso explained, but she was still hesitant, even after the officer showed her her badge.

“At this point, I don't know if I can trust her, but I still am — I'm kind of in a helpless position right now,” Grazioso recalled. “ I don't have any other choice. So I start just pleading with her, and I say, ‘Please don't hurt me. Please don't hurt me. Do you promise me you won't hurt me? Just please keep promising, promise, promise, promise,’ as I'm walking down the stairs towards her.”

Other students The Campus spoke with described being unsure if the people that found them throughout the building were real police, or if they could be armed individuals posing as law enforcement to draw students from their hiding places.

“I think my biggest fear at the time, or what was really going through my mind was, ‘How am I supposed to know when to come out? How do I know if it’s the police telling me to come out?’” Boss said.

Protocol

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Grazioso, and later Boss, were both relocated to areas of the library that were being guarded by armed officers. Law enforcement worked to identify a safe route through the building that they knew was clear before they began to move students through it, eventually evacuating them out of the building, MPD Sergeant Vegar Boe told The Campus in an interview Monday.

Many students described being relocated to the first-floor printer room as they waited to be evacuated. ZZ Pu ’23, one of the students relocated to the room, estimated that roughly 40 students in total were moved into the room. He was one of the first students in the space and said he spent about 30 minutes there — students in the room were evacuated after officers finished searching the basement, first and second floors.

Pu started to make his way downstairs from the second floor, where he had been studying, after he heard shouting and spotted an officer with a rifle on the floor below. As he was coming down the stairs, two officers moved towards him.

“They pointed their rifles at me, and they said, ‘Don’t move. Hands up. Show me your hands,’” Pu recalled.

Pu followed their directions, descending the stairs on the side of the library opposite the printer room. Several minutes later, another officer told him to stay down and move quickly across the library lobby area — which the second-floor balcony overlooks — to get to the printer room where other students were sheltering.

“I felt pretty nervous because of how professionally they were taking this issue,” Pu said. 

“It’s kind of weird because police pointing a gun at you and saying, ‘Show me your hands,’ it’s like a movie scene, right?” he added.

MPD officers and officers from the Vermont State Police (VSP) New Haven Barracks, a VSP Tactical Services Unit, the Vergennes Police Department, the Rutland County Sheriff’s Department and the Castleton Police Department worked to search the building and evacuate students. Upwards of 20 officers responded to the call, according to Boe. 

Middlebury Regional Emergency Medical Services also responded to the call. “They were ready to go and pick up or recover injured and wounded people — if there were any. Obviously, in this case, there weren’t any,” Boe said.

Boe noted that protocol for responding to active shooter calls has changed since he first started on the force 24 years ago. “When we first arrived at one of these calls, I think the rule back then was like, you wait for five people [law enforcement officers] to show up, and then you enter,” he explained. “And then it became three people and you enter, and now, of course, the rule is that whoever shows up enters immediately.”

Two MPD officers were the first to arrive on the scene and begin searching — arriving at the building five minutes after the hoax call, according to Director of Public Safety Demitria Kirby. Under the current protocol, Boe explained, the first officer or officers to arrive begin the search and work to coordinate with any other officers who arrive later so they can cover the maximum area possible.

“And then you continue searching until either the whole building has been covered or the threat has been stopped,” Boe said.

Footage from the Davis Family Library MiddCam, a camera that live streams the front of the library at all hours, showed squad cars arriving and parking at the back of the library around 10:30 p.m. Later, individuals who appeared to be law enforcement were visible doing sweeps of the interior of the building and the library roof. At around 12:10 a.m. on Monday morning, the cam showed a number of people who seemed to be law enforcement exiting the building with flashlights. 

False-report calls have been increasing in frequency at schools throughout the U.S., with individuals calling in false bomb threats or shooting incidents in an attempt to get law enforcement, or even a SWAT team, to respond. Law enforcement responded to similar hoax calls about active shooters at Boston University, Syracuse University and Wake Forest University on Sunday night. In light of this cluster of swatting calls, the investigation of the incident at Middlebury has been turned over to the FBI, Boe said.

Communication

Though police responded to the swatting call at 10:30 p.m., students inside and outside of the building did not receive word from the college about what was happening for nearly the entire time officers were searching and evacuating the building. The college sent an emergency alert through the MiddAlert system at 11:53 p.m., notifying students of the situation via text, email and phone call.

“There has been a report of an active shooter at the Davis Famiy [sic] Library on campus. Police officers are on scene and are searching the library. So far, they have not found anything and this does not appear to be a credible threat. Shelter in place until further notice. We will provide more information once it becomes available,” the email message read.

An automated MiddAlerts phone call told students that campus was in lockdown due to an active shooter reported in Davis and instructed them to “use run, fight, hide procedures.” While such procedures might be familiar to many students — many U.S. schools have regular lockdown and active shooter drills — some noted that not everyone had received such training.

Arthur Martins ’23.5, an international student, said he had never done a lockdown or active shooter drill before. After he heard about the events unfolding at Davis from a group chat he was in, he turned to his housemates to learn more about how to proceed. 

“My housemates were all kind of used to it, it seemed,” Martins said. “I don’t have a language to understand what’s happening, and I didn’t know what I should do.”

Together, the group shut the blinds, turned out the lights and hunkered down in a room together. Since then, Martins said he has been doing research and trying to learn what to do in threat scenarios like the one reported at the library. On Monday, he spoke with an employee at the library, asking for resources and information about what to do. The employee toured him around the library, pointing out where he could go should he need to hide or escape.

The college does not do lockdown or active shooter drills, though Martins noted he did have to do a required online training when he matriculated in 2017. The Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey offered a training session last week on April 4.

Boss and Grazioso noted that the initial MiddAlert notification came well after they had both been evacuated from the building, had their information and stories taken down by officers on the scene, and had been released back to their residence.

“It was definitely interesting for us because, for us, the threat felt completely over by the time that that was sent out,” Grazioso said, referring to herself and Boss.

Information about what was happening in Davis spread rapidly via messages from students inside the building and social media posts about the situation. On the anonymous message board Yik Yak, students shared information, speculation and memes, with many wondering why they had not received an emergency alert telling them to shelter in place — or at least to stay away from the library.

Pu, who was texting friends from inside the building, noted that he ran into two friends on Monday who had been on their way to the library while law enforcement were searching the building.

“So while the argument is that we should delay the alert systems so that the students inside Davis could be safe, I felt bad for whoever was walking toward Davis at the [time of the] incident, and they could have been alerted,” Pu said.

In the Middlebury Parents Facebook Group, parents traded information about the unfolding situation and criticized the lack of immediate communication to students from the college. “My daughter is with a friend in Battell and only info they have received is from friends texting them. Where is the campus alert system?!?” one parent wrote at 11:12 p.m.

Students inside the library also noted that they might not have known what was happening had it not been for messages from friends. Boss was not aware that there was a threat of an active shooter in the building until she received Grazioso’s text.

“If I hadn’t gotten that text from Molly [Grazioso], I would have just kept doing work,” Boss said. “I'm sure eventually I would have been like, ‘Why is there so much commotion?’ But the thing is, the yelling — it wasn't a lot of commotion. It was just abnormally loud voices for the library.”

Initial information about how students around campus should proceed also spread through unofficial channels. Grazioso said she texted her housemates and told them there were reports of an active shooter in the library and that they should shelter in place. “Everyone in my townhouse shut the blinds, turned off the lights and had shoes and sweatshirts and were ready to evacuate if they needed to,” she said.

The events of Sunday night might result in changes to the emergency alert system.

“The Crisis Management Team is reviewing its protocols considering last night’s situation: weighing whether to use Rave [MiddAlert] alerts even for unsubstantiated reports of this nature, and more precisely defining what a ‘substantial emergency response presence on campus’ means,” Kirby told The Campus. The college recently tested the emergency alert system on April 4, with notifications going out to students a little before 1:30 p.m. 

College community members received an “all clear” message a little before 12:30 a.m. on Monday, lifting the shelter-in-place order. A little before 7 a.m. on Monday morning, college administrators sent an all-school email addressing the events of the previous night — broadly outlining the situation, thanking law enforcement and sharing a list of resources and support options for students. The college sent a similar message to parents.

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College community members must now scan their IDs to enter the library.

The college also asked professors to be lenient with students who needed to miss class or delay assignments while they process the events of Sunday night.

“I’m just really thankful that there was no real threat and everyone’s OK,” Grazioso said.

Many students tried to return to normal routines on Monday, attending class or spending time outside on one of the first warm days of the spring. 

“The feelings I was experiencing with the threat last night and walking around campus with the great weather today and seeing people hanging out and all the prospective students just enjoying the sun, it felt like a jarring image,” Martins said.

One student, who asked to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of the situation, was on the first floor of the library when law enforcement entered the building and asked them to put their hands up. They noted that they are still feeling an abnormal sense of tension.

“It’s going to take me, I think, a few days to recover and then enjoy the sun outside,” the student said.


Abigail Chang

Abigail Chang ’23 (she/her) is the Editor in Chief.  

She previously served as a managing editor, Senior News Editor, News Editor and co-host of The Campus' weekly news radio show.  

Chang is majoring in English and minoring in linguistics. She is a member of the Media Portrayals of Minorities Project, a Middlebury lab that uses computer-assisted and human coding techniques to analyze bulk newspaper data.  

Throughout last year, Chang worked on source diversity and content audits for different media properties as an intern for Impact Architects LLC. Chang spent summer 2021 in Vermont, working as a general assignment reporter for statewide digital newspaper VTDigger.  Chang is also a member of the Middlebury Paradiddles, an a cappella group.


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