Student threat leaves USF community frightened and frustrated

By Hayley Burcher, Holden Fatheree, Katherine Na

A student shares their concerns about the University’s handling of the Nov. 24 incident with Dan Lawson and Mary Wardell. HAYLEY BURCHER/FOGHORN

UPDATED: 11 a.m. 11/26/19

Around 7 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 24, reports of a shooting threat targeting Gillson Hall began circulating rapidly around the campus community. There was never an active shooter present on campus, but the public was not made aware of this until the Department of Public Safety sent out an alert at 7:51 p.m.

The rumors, which largely spread through social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, varied widely. Some students believed the school was on lockdown, while others believed there to be an active shooter on campus.  

The reports arose after students flagged a fellow student, a freshman Gillson Hall resident, to Public Safety for making alarming statements and threats, both over social media and text. 

The student threatened violence against peers on his floor and their acquaintances. He threatened to shoot people with a shotgun and demanded that two women who attend USF engage in sexual activity with him and have his baby. He threatened the lives of multiple commenters on his (now-deleted) Instagram post and made references to killing students’ families and eating other students’ genitals. The student stated that the University was his property and that this gave him the right to murder other students. 

According to an emailed statement from Julie Orio, vice provost of Student Life, Public Safety was notified of the posts and threats and began investigating their credibility at 3:36 p.m. An hour later, they were notified of additional threats on social media and added them to the investigation. At that time, Public Safety also contacted the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) and worked with them to assess the severity of the threats and the risk they posed to the campus community. According to Public Safety Senior Director Dan Lawson, the student’s dorm room was searched for any firearms or “propaganda” around 5 p.m. Around this time, Public Safety and SFPD ultimately ruled that the student did not pose a risk to the entire campus community. 

As Public Safety and the SFPD were conducting their investigation, the Instagram posts and threats began spreading between students over social media and through text messages and messaging services like Slack before swiftly gaining momentum around 7 p.m. At this point, many Gillson resident advisers (RAs) advised their residents to stay inside their rooms until the situation was resolved, and some community office managers (COMs) of various residence halls began notifying their community assistant (CA) staffs to avoid opening main entrance doors for students. They had still not received any official notice from senior Student Housing and Residential Education (SHaRE) staff, the University, or Public Safety.

Multiple students around campus reported barricading themselves inside their dorm rooms. Asma Mudassar, a senior international studies major and member of the Tri Delta sorority, said that after receiving a Slack message about the shooting threat at 6:50 p.m., she and her fellow sorority members blockaded the entrance of the Berman Room in Fromm Hall, where they had gathered for their chapter meeting, with chairs and tables. The 30 Tri Delta members hid for about 45 minutes before they heard that it was safe to leave. 

“And there was no official lockdown, but people were locking themselves down because of social media,” Lawson said in an interview with the Foghorn. “So social media got ahead of us, basically.”

Students also took to Twitter to share their fears and frustrations.

Around 7:30 p.m., the student returned to campus with an unspecified family member. Contrary to statements issued by the University the following day, the student was not detained and arrested immediately upon his return to campus. A “card swipe warrant” was placed on the student’s ID, denying him entry into Gillson or any other campus building and alerting Public Safety to his location once he tried to scan his card for access. When he realized his card was not working, the student became distraught. He screamed at the CA and staff inside Gillson to permit him entry into the building, declaring that he “owned” the school while using the N-word and other obscenities. The scene was recorded by multiple students and posted on social media. 

Shortly after the student attempted to scan his card to gain access into Gillson, Public Safety, and SFPD officers arrived on the scene. SFPD officers were armed with weapons such as assault rifles and, according to Lawson, eventually had to “take down and handcuff” the student in order to restrain and apprehend him.

At 7:51 p.m., approximately 20 minutes after the student had been arrested, Public Safety sent out a USF Alert stating, “There is no active shooter on campus and our community is not in danger. USF Public Safety is monitoring the situation and in contact with SFPD.” This was the first official notice about the situation that members of the campus community received. 

Later in the evening, a slightly more detailed email from Public Safety was sent out, once again stating that, “At no time was there an active shooter on campus.” The email also informed the community that Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) would be having drop-in hours the following day in order to help individuals cope with the “very difficult situation.”

A longer email statement from Orio was sent out the following day, Nov. 25, at around 12:30 p.m, in which she stated that, “[The student] will not be returning to campus, pending the university’s disciplinary review.” At the public forum later that same day, Orio reiterated that it is “highly unlikely” that the student will be allowed to return to campus. 

The student is currently being held in the San Francisco County Jail after being arrested on two counts of stalking and two counts of criminal threats.

UPDATE 11 a.m. 11/26/19: The student was released from the San Francisco County Jail on bail late on the evening of Monday, Nov. 25, but was re-arrested and re-booked at 3:43 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 26. He now faces additional charges: one count of carjacking, one count of assault with a deadly weapon (not a firearm), and one count of an allegation of offense while on bail.

The aftermath

On Nov. 25 at 2 p.m., the University held a public forum in the McLaren Complex to discuss the incident. In attendance were various members of University administration and representatives from multiple departments across campus, including Public Safety, the Office of Student Life, and SHaRE.

During the first part of the forum, Lawson went over the details of the incident as the University and Public Safety understood them. 

Dean of Students Shannon Gary made a clarification about the incident, which he was present for. “Although the student used the N-word very generously throughout the night … it was never once used in a way where he was threatening a black-identifying person on campus,” Gary said.

Over the course of his explanation, Lawson repeatedly brought up the impact that social media had on the reaction of the campus community. “One of my big takeaways from this is that social media is getting way, way ahead of us,” Lawson said. 

This sentiment would go on to be challenged repeatedly by students over the second part of the forum, which consisted of students sharing their experiences and expressing their frustrations with the University’s handling of the situation.

“When you fail to acknowledge an issue immediately, you leave it to students to respond. So the social media issue is not on us — it’s on the University for not telling us what was happening.”

A student at the public forum

“I am so frustrated with the school right now,” one student said. “I understand that you wanted to avoid a mass panic, but the way you did it only created a mini mass panic.”

Many students expressed frustration with the University’s lack of communication and lack of concern for how serious the threat could have been. 

“What are you going to do to put students first?” a student said. “I’m not going to keep putting myself in debt for a university that does not care about my mental or emotional wellbeing.”

A Gillson CA said that, earlier in the day, the CA she was double-staffed with had called Public Safety and requested the presence of an officer in case the student returned. Public Safety informed them that no officer was available at the time.

A member of a sorority also spoke up during the forum, saying that she was extremely concerned to hear that the student, who had been making violently misogynistic threats, was not accounted for after his posts had been flagged — around the same time that “80 girls” from the sorority were meeting outside.

Candice Harrison, history professor and director of the BASE (Black Achievement Success and Engagement) program, spoke out during this portion of the forum. “I would like to know why I never knew more about this student or this incident … part of my job is to support black students in particular,” she said.

“I just want to remind everybody that misogyny is a pretty big red flag for violence,” Harrison continued. “So if we’ve got students on social media saying harassing things to women, I would hope you’d take this really, really seriously … because in almost every active shooter situation, these shooters have histories of violence against women.”

As the forum closed, Vice Provost and Chief Diversity Officer Mary Wardell asked the audience what the University could be doing better in situations such as this. Students emphasized a need for a University-wide lockdown protocol and an urging for Public Safety and SHaRE to take warning signs, such as the ones the student exhibited prior to this incident, seriously.

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