On Wednesday night, thousands of texts and GroupMe messages sent shockwaves throughout the Northwestern community as students feared for their lives and wondered what was happening.
For 32 terrifying minutes, there were no announcements, no warnings and no calls to stay sheltered that came from the university. Students passed on messages that spread like wildfire, letting friends and colleagues know that they were in danger.
At 8:10 p.m. CT, gunshots were fired near Clark Street Beach.
At 8:42 p.m. CT, Northwestern sent out a tweet.
Roughly 10 minutes after the initial shots went off, I was at my off-campus house studying when my roommate told me there was a shooting. Every single text group, extracurricular GroupMe, Slack chat and Twitter feed were all blowing up with the same information. There was an active shooter near Northwestern’s South Beach, find someplace to shelter, stay indoors and stay safe.
For half an hour, everyone wondered when Northwestern would say something to warn its students. We’ve all received texts and emails from the university’s AlertNU system letting us know of emergencies — most recently when a tree fell and injured five in February — so the silence was especially confusing.
After 30 minutes of students being left in the dark and worried for our lives, Northwestern sent a tweet:
“Police are responding to shots fired at Clark St. Beach just south of Evanston campus. Suspects fled north toward campus. Shelter in place until further notice.”
Five minutes later, Northwestern finally sent out its first AlertNU text message and email of the night.
To call the administration’s response anything other than a complete and utter failure to protect its students is an understatement. Immediately after shots were fired at the beach, the suspects were reported by witnesses to have fled north toward campus while armed, with the news getting to most of the students far before the university informed everyone. While any further shooting on campus after the original gunshots was avoided, the delay to notify everyone of danger could have been detrimental to the safety of Northwestern students because of a failure to act.
In the time it took for Northwestern to respond and warn its students, the shooters could have harmed dozens of more students, or worse. With all the emergency systems in place and capabilities to do so, it’s disturbing that the university was not able to mobilize its emergency team quickly enough to make a difference.
An hour after the original tweet was sent out by Northwestern, every student subscribed to the AlertNU service received a call from a robotic voice that said, “University police are responding to a report of a BLANK on the Evanston campus at BLANK. Please avoid the area and await further info,” almost a perfect indictment of how the school had handled its communication Wednesday night.
It’s incredibly horrifying the way this shooting has been treated by professors and administrators across campus. When the first shots were fired, hundreds of Biology 201 students were still taking a midterm exam. Rather than shutting it down and ensuring their safety, the students were instructed to continue their exams until they had finished.
Apparently, that was more important than their lives.
Amidst the uncertainty and fear, 28 minutes after students received the “all clear” message, a professor even emailed her students that there would still be a quiz in class Thursday, which they had to attend. Another sent out a rubric for grading their assignments.
A situation like this can be incredibly psychologically taxing. While I was thankfully off campus and not in immediate danger, many students living in the dorms and close by Sheridan Road shared that they feared for what would happen next and whether the shooters were still at large. I worried for my friends who were trapped in the libraries, and those who I could not reach during the time. Being stuck in a stalemate when no information is known about whether you and your colleagues would be alright or not is draining, and the university’s refusal to make any further announcements immediately following the shooting spoke volumes that both its students’ physical and mental health was not a priority.
For the university to not be prepared to deal with a potential shooting threat is one thing. To refuse to take action by warning students of impending danger and taking steps to secure the campus is another. There is no reason why a student should be forced to risk their life to finish an exam, nor a reason why all classes and activities should be immediately continued as normal without respect to the trauma many of the students experienced on Wednesday. On top of that, for Northwestern to spend over $11 million on policing and still not have a valid system to secure the campus and make sure its students are aware and safe is a travesty in itself.
The events of Wednesday night echo a far larger tale than just a bad evening, one set by the passing of time where gun violence in America has become normalized. In the past months, we’ve seen shooting threats at Indiana University and University of Oklahoma, along with an actual shooting where three students died and five were injured at Michigan State two months ago to the day. Going back to November, three students also died from a shooting at the University of Virginia.
This is nothing new. Since the Columbine shooting in 1999, there have been 377 school shootings, per data from The Washington Post. I went through elementary school around the same time as Sandy Hook. I walked out of school as a junior in high school after the Parkland shooting. Last year, 19 children and two adults were shot and killed in Uvalde, Texas, and no one I knew batted an eye.
We’re at a stage now where the gun debate across the country is just as polarizing as ever. Just last week, high school students from all across Tennessee traveled to the state’s courthouse to protest Tennessee gun laws, a move that saw two state representatives get expelled for supporting students who protested for their right not to be shot dead in schools.
This is not a partisan issue, it’s an issue for everyone. An 18- or 19-year-old human being — who was around the same age as thousands who feared for their lives Wednesday — lost his life, and the fact is that he’s far from the only one. Even worse, he certainly won’t be the last.
As disturbing as it all is, the likeliness that anything changes on a major scope soon is few and far between. Northwestern, on the other hand, will be held accountable by its students, and it is imperative that the university recognizes the terror and lack of safety felt by many members of its population and takes that to heart. Not only must Northwestern acknowledge its own faults with the Wednesday shooting and find room for improvement, it must actually dedicate itself to implementing real change and making sure its students will be safe moving forward.