Medical school shooting sets off alert system on Monday

| Breaking News Editor

A shooting took place on the Washington University Medical Campus near 600 S. Taylor Ave on Monday. The incident involved two groups of youths and resulted in a teenage boy being treated at St. Louis Children’s Hospital for a gunshot wound to the abdomen.

In response to the altercation, the University’s emergency alert system was triggered for the second time this month, sending calls, texts and website and app notifications to Washington University students, faculty and staff.

The shooting occurred at approximately 5:25 p.m. on April 11, and the shooter fled the scene. By 5:40 p.m., officers were searching for the suspect on the medical campus. The initial alert was sent out at 5:51 p.m., with no updates until a message reading “ALL CLEAR: The Emergency is Over” was sent out at 6:42 p.m. The website had taken down the initial alert by 6:28 p.m., replacing it with an all clear alert by 6:39 p.m.

At 8:08 p.m., an update was posted on the emergency website noting the location of the incident and that one victim was was being treated in an unknown condition. Another update was sent out to students, faculty and staff around 9:40 a.m. the next morning that clarified the victim’s status.

Eric Hamilton, a graduate student in biology, contacted he emergency services department to provide feedback for what he called a vague and late alert to a potentially dangerous situation.

“The alert came out fairly late, at least 10 to 20 minutes after all of the activity. And like the previous alert, it was incredibly vague, where it said a person with a weapon is on the medical campus, and it didn’t describe what the weapon is or the fact that it has actually been used…it seems kind of pointless, and potentially misleading or confusing,” Hamilton said.

He noted that, ideally, the University should be providing frequent updates following an initial alert so that people could respond more accurately to the situation.

“I think it’s far more helpful if they describe what the weapon is, if it is being used, if shots were actually fired, and of course, where the location is,” Hamilton said. “Frankly if someone was on the top floor of Children’s Hospital [at that time], they didn’t really need to do anything but if somebody was at the Institute for Public Health they needed to take active precautions, and they certainly needed to not go outside.”

John Ursch, director of protective services, noted that the alerts were sent as soon as possible, but that merely having an alert system in place doesn’t lead to more information being shared.

“We had officers really close to the scene that responded within a couple of seconds or minutes, and within maybe a few minutes, the call went out to activate the emergency alert system,” he said. “The first alert, the pre-canned message, went out maybe 15 minutes after that. It was a very chaotic situation, there was one person at dispatch who had to handle radios, phones and launching that alert and what took precedence and why is still something we’re looking at.”

Ursch added that while many may believe that the initial messages sent out are frustratingly vague, they are pre-written for the sake of expediency.

“It’s not as if somebody is sitting down and composing something. There is a basic message and when it comes to a person with a weapon, whether it’s North Campus or medical campus, Danforth Campus. Once the decision is made to send that, it’s already set to what the verbiage is and it’s set to the means which it goes out by,” Ursch said. “The only thing the operators are doing is basically hitting the go button.”

Ursch also noted that they did not share additional information due to misinformation about the incident.

“In the first hour, there was a lot of confusion. So giving everybody a blow by blow, we probably could have put out more bad information than any clarifying information that would make people feel better,” he said.

Senior Orchid Abar was heading towards the medical school for a dinner when the alerts were first sent out, arriving on the medical campus around 6:10 p.m.

“We missed the 5:52 train by just a couple of seconds, and at 5:53 we got the notification that there was a shooting at the medical school,” Abar said. “Everything seemed totally normal at the medical school, I didn’t even see any cops at the metro stop. It didn’t really seem like there was any immediate danger to me or the people I was with. Then, we just went to our meeting. Obviously it was scary, but I felt like we were safe the entire time because we weren’t exactly at Central West End when it happened.”

Risa Zwerling, a leader within the University’s year-long gun violence public health initiative and wife of Chancellor Mark Wrighton, noted that the alerts were extremely helpful.

“It was fabulous, oh my goodness, everything was ringing all over my house, I mean every phone, every computer, I mean it was astounding,” Zwerling said. “Maybe they were a bit scary because they told you to hunker down, but I think they were appropriate…you want to minimize collateral damage.”

Zwerling also pointed out that the number of shootings that take place have made people complacent.

“Unfortunately, it was ho hum, that’s the sad thing. It’s just another day, just another shooting. Of course I was hoping nothing tragic would happen. The fact that it was on our campus of course made me a little more nervous, but the sad thing is that it’s not shocking, and that’s the tragedy. Because we’re so used to this,” Zwerling said.

A Sunshine Request for information was filed with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police for updated information on the shooting, but no response was received by the time of publication.

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