Virginia Tech Inspires Delaware State Response

DOVER, Del.

Alex Bishoff heard five gunshots from inside his dorm room at Delaware State University and looked out his window to see people scattering. He immediately thought of the Virginia Tech shootings in April.

So did Delaware State officials. Even as two students who were shot were being transported to hospitals, campus police and residence hall advisers were knocking on doors and telling students to stay in their rooms.

Administrators, mindful of the Virginia Tech massacre, ordered a swift shutdown of the campus Friday, lowering gates to keep anyone from coming onto it, while police searched for the gunman.

“The biggest lesson learned from that whole situation at Virginia Tech is don’t wait. Once you have an incident, start notifying the community,” said university spokesman Carlos Holmes.

Students were warned within about 15 minutes, said Bishoff, 20, a freshman from Washington, D.C. “I think they handled it pretty well,” he said.

The shootings, reported to police at 12:54 a.m. Friday, occurred as a group of students were returning from an on campus cafe. A 17-year-old male student was in stable condition; a female student, also 17, was shot in the abdomen and in serious condition.

The students were shot on the Campus Mall, between the Memorial Hall gymnasium and Richard S. Grossley Hall, an administrative building. Investigators believed the shootings may have been preceded by an argument at the cafe, and officials said it did not appear to be random.

“This is an internal problem,” university President Allen Sessoms said. “There are no externalities … this is just kids who did very, very stupid things.”

The male student, who was wounded in the ankle, refused 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 because the investigation was ongoing.

“This not an act of terrorism,” said university police Chief James Overton. “This was not a crazed gunman who found his way onto campus.”

University police said they had identified two persons of interest, both students. Both were located and interviewed, though no arrests had been made by Friday night.

“They did provide information to us that is very useful,” Overton said. “It has led us to more witnesses that we are seeking now, and one other person of interest who we hope will be able to shed light on this situation.”

Campus officials acted much more swiftly than officials at Virginia Tech did five months ago, when administrators delayed notifying students nearly two hours after gunman Seung-Hui Cho killed his first two victims. By then, he had already started shooting 30 other people in a classroom building across campus.

A report by a panel appointed by Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine concluded that lives could have been saved if alerts had been sent out earlier and classes canceled after Cho killed his first two victims.

At Delaware State, officials didn’t wait. By 2:11 a.m., Overton was meeting with another university official to discuss the school’s response. Notices were posted in dormitories and the school Web site by about 2:40 a.m., and the decision to cancel classes was made shortly after 5 a.m., well before the school day started.

At Virginia Tech, the rampage began at 7 a.m. as students thronged the campus and headed to morning classes; at Delaware State, it happened in the middle of the night, when many students were in their dorm rooms.

The panel that investigated the response to the Virginia Tech shootings noted that it would have been tough to shut down the 2,600-acre Tech campus; Delaware State is only about 400 acres. But it appears Delaware State responded to the crisis well, says Gerald Massengill, who led the group.

“I think just like post-9/11, there’s a post-April 16 mentality,” he says.

Delaware State, a historically Black institution with 3,690 students, began the school year mourning victims of the Aug. 4 shootings that occurred at an elementary school in their hometown of Newark, N.J.

Natasha Aeriel, 19; her brother, Terrance Aeriel, 18, and Dashon Harvey, 20, were students. Iofemi Hightower, 20, had planned to attend Delaware State this fall. Natasha Aeriel, the only survivor, helped police identify six suspects who have been arrested.

Holmes said there was no indication that Friday’s shooting was related in any way to the Newark, N.J., killings. Both of the victims in Friday’s shootings were from the Washington, D.C., area, officials said.

Students have said tension between rival groups of friends from New Jersey and Washington, D.C., preceded the shooting.

While investigators worked to find the shooter who opened fire early Friday as several students left a campus dining hall, a classmate recalled how the violence had escalated from altercations during the week.

“They’ve been getting into it, New Jersey people and D.C. people,” James Dillion, 23, said Saturday. “Thursday night, they saw each other again and got into it,” he said. “Everybody’s still astonished about what happened.”

Sessoms said the campus would return to normal business on Sunday, and classes would resume Monday. “We’re moving ahead,” he said.

Campus meetings were planned in response to the shooting, Sessoms said.

“Clearly, we’re doing some things well, but we need to do other things better,” he said.

– Associated Press

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