Wesleyan Wins Praise For Its Handling Of Fatal Shooting And Its Aftermath

Hundreds of Wesleyan students were converging on Foss Hill for Spring Fling last Wednesday when university officials learned that Johanna Justin-Jinich lay fatally wounded in an off-campus bookstore — and that the gunman was still at large.

Almost immediately, the university canceled the annual end-of-classes celebration, which was to feature big-time acts Santigold and The Clipse, and put the campus on lockdown. Text messages, voice mail and e-mails were simultaneously dispatched to faculty and students, warning them to be vigilant.

A week after Justin-Jinich, a junior, was shot point-blank at the Red & Black Cafe inside Broad Street Books, parents and students are commending the university for acting swiftly and keeping the campus community informed. A nonprofit group in Pennsylvania dedicated to promoting college safety also is praising Wesleyan's efforts.

"From what I have seen, Wesleyan did respond quickly to getting the information out to its students and its faculty," said Alison Kiss, programs director for Security on Campus Inc.

The response was a sharp contrast to the tragedy at Virginia Tech two years ago, when officials there were criticized for reacting slowly in notifying students that a shooter was loose on campus.

In that case, Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old senior, went on to kill 30 people in an engineering and classroom building, about two hours after shooting to death two students in an undergraduate dormitory. Cho killed himself after the massacre.

Since then, colleges and universities throughout the country have scrambled to improve their emergency notification systems. Former President George W. Bush signed into law the Higher Education Opportunity Act last year, requiring colleges and universities to create a communications system that contacts students through text messages or other methods when "a significant emergency or dangerous situation occurs."

According to Campus Safety Magazine, mass text messaging appears to be the most popular choice among universities. Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois State University, the site of a shooting rampage last year, have bolstered their notification systems after the campus tragedies.

The University of Connecticut improved its system in 2007 and has updated it since. Along with text-message and voice mail alerts, all pages on the university website flash with a yellow or red banner if there is an emergency, school spokeswoman Karen Grava said. A siren will also sound on campus.

Wesleyan spokesman David Pesci said that the school had CONNECTEd — its e-mail, voice mail, text message alert system — as far back as six months before the Virginia Tech shootings. Officials activated the system Wednesday when word arrived about the 1 p.m. shooting.

By late afternoon, the usually bustling campus seemed like a ghost town.

Throughout the day, students and faculty continued to receive news from the university. Between Wednesday at 1:40 p.m. and Friday at 12:30 p.m., Wesleyan officials posted 13 updates to the school's website, informing the campus community about the shooting, the victim and the suspect's status.

In those initial hours, lawyer Andrea Goldman spoke on the phone with her son, 21-year-old junior Alex Golick, about whether he should leave campus and drive to their home outside Boston. Golick had been acquainted with Justin-Jinich and was upset, even more so when police revealed that the suspected killer, Stephen Morgan, 29, made threats against Jewish people.

"We had a whole conversation about whether it was safer for him to be at home, or risk having a bullet go through his window," Goldman said Tuesday.

After sleeping in the dorms Wednesday night, Golick and a friend decided to drive to the family's house Thursday, returning to Wesleyan Friday morning once word came that Morgan had turned himself in.

But in that early period of anxiety and fear, Goldman said, she received some comfort: Wesleyan public safety had offered to escort her son from his dormitory to his car. She also appreciated getting regular updates from the university to her e-mail account.

"The school was pretty wonderful about the whole thing," Goldman said.

Her only concern was an e-mail sent Wednesday at 5:31 p.m. Based on information from Middletown police that there was no reason to believe that the shooter was still on the Wesleyan campus, the university said that "we are advised that students may return to their normal routines, though we ask everyone to be vigilant and safety conscious," according to the e-mail.

"How vigilant can you be if he has a gun?" Goldman said.

Later that evening, the university sent another e-mail warning students again to keep to their dormitories after police learned that the suspect might have been targeting other members of the Wesleyan community.

Jennifer Wolfe lives in North Carolina, too far away to have her son, 21-year-old junior Thomas Manning, come home for a couple of days. "Just not knowing, not being there, it was hard," said Wolfe, who kept thinking about the Virginia Tech massacre.

But she said that the frequent updates on Wesleyan's website, and talking with others through a parents' e-mail LISTSERV, quelled her fears. "It was very comforting to have that resource."

Pesci, the Wesleyan spokesman, said that the most important thing in handling a campus emergency is relaying the facts "with concise and clear communication. ... You want to keep people informed and keep any kind of frantic response or panic to a minimum."

In an open letter to university staff and Middletown police, student body President Mike Pernick said he was grateful "for the flow of information you provided to us, countering the doubts, rumors, and baseless fears that spread like wildfire during this crisis."

Wesleyan made adjustments to the finals schedule, extending exam week by one day in case students were unable to study over the past several days. Boxed lunches were brought to dorms, wrote Pernick, a junior.

"Our gratitude is only eclipsed by our sadness," he wrote.

Justin-Jinich, 21, from Fort Collins, Colo., was buried in a private ceremony earlier this week, according to published reports.