Run. Hide. Fight: How CU navigates the everyday risk of campus violence

Roommates Bella Zippo and Ruthie Gorrell were watching Netflix with friends in their dorm room on the second floor of Farrand Hall on the night of September 14 when the University of Colorado’s alert system sent a message notifying students of a “serious threat” in the building. The text told students “Stay in your rooms. RUN. HIDE. FIGHT.” 

Both of them looked at the text confused. What kind of threat? Gorrell went to her desk and grabbed her pepper spray. After they calmed down, the two of them went to ask their resident advisor what to do.

“We had no idea what could be going on,” Gorrell said. “If there was a serious threat inside Farrand, I was concerned about how easy it is to get into the building, but I felt safer when we found out it was just a pocket knife.”

 The panic was over a false alarm, which the students learned once CU’s system sent out another message notifying students that the weapon (later revealed to be a pocket knife) wasn’t displayed in a “threatening manner.” But as news of mass shootings and the number dead as a result continues to rise, it’s an issue that CU actively encourages its students to prepare for.

The alert Gorrell, Zippo and over 50,000 others received is a part of CU Police Department’s Division of Emergency Management, which recommends on its website that students “have the mindset that [an active harmer situation] will happen here at some point,” noting that universities are open spaces that are difficult to secure. 

But despite the university’s acknowledgement of the risk, students and faculty members aren’t mandated to learn much about active harmer incidents, how to respond or how CU’s alert system can help in case of an emergency of that nature.

Though it’s not required for students or faculty, the CU Police Department offers classes on campus for staff and students to learn about how to handle an active harmer situation. The most recent class on October 10 detailed how responses to active harmer incidents in the past differ in comparison to modern-day protocols, talking specifically about how CU’s emergency response team uses the alert system to communicate with people in the midst of an active harmer incident.

Because there’s such a high likelihood — and ultimately an expectation — for an active harmer incident to occur on Boulder’s campus, CUPD Sergeant John Zizz, who led the active harmer training session, said the best way to protect yourself is to prepare yourself. 

“Regardless of the emergency, you’ve got to have a plan to react,” Zizz said. “Fear will paralyze you. If we’re afraid and a situation is really scary, we’re not gonna be able to move. But if you prepare and think about ‘What would I do if this happened?’ you’ll be able to respond with one of the appropriate responses of running, hiding or fighting,” Zizz said, echoing the language used in CU’s alerts.

The University of Colorado’s alert system has been criticized in the past, namely in October 2016 when CU sent out an alert about “unconfirmed reports of [an] active harmer” at the University Memorial Center just hours after a man with a machete was shot by law enforcement officers in the Champion Center. Even though the reports were false, students inside the UMC rushed out as armed law enforcement officers filtered in. In classes around campus, instructors who hadn’t heard news of the event continued with class, doors wide open.

“We send out an alert as soon as we feel like there is a legitimate, imminent threat to campus or parts of campus,” Scott Pribble, a public information officer for the University of Colorado Boulder Police Department, said. “Oftentimes it’s even before officers have arrived on scene, so we don’t have all the details, but we want to get the message out as quickly as we possibly can.”

This year’s alerts are a little more specific than they have been in the past and give students an idea of what to do. In 2016, students were told to “take appropriate protective action.” Now, students are told to run, hide and fight — run if you can run, hide if you can’t run and fight if you can’t hide. But because CUPD sends each alert as they receive the information, not as officers address the situation, the alerts often come off as incomplete and misleading to students and faculty.

On top of the text message alerts the university sends out, CU began using Alertus app this year, which sends out emergency notifications over wifi to students without strong call phone reception. Guests visiting the university can also opt-in to receive emergency notifications during their time on campus.

On CU Boulder’s campus, some feel an especially heightened sense of hostility because of the state’s concealed campus carry policy. Zizz didn’t mention information about lawfully-concealed handguns on campus during his presentation, but it’s an issue that’s on the mind of many students and faculty at CU. 

Some see campus carry as a threat, but there are others, like Addison Rice, a sophomore at CU Boulder studying evolutionary biology, who feel safer due to the policy.

“I think if we were to cultivate a culture where more people are armed, more people are concealing, and everyone knows it, then anyone that would be contemplating a mass shooting would think twice,” Rice said. “You don’t see anybody carrying out premeditated shootings at a gun range because they know everybody is armed.”

Even though Rice said he feels that CU Boulder is a safe campus, he still prepares himself for emergencies. Since he isn’t 21, Rice can’t carry a firearm on campus. Instead, he keeps a tactical pen with a glass beaker tip tucked into his pocket. Off campus, he carries around a fixed-blade knife or a security baton.

Most arguments for allowing people to arm themselves on college campuses echo Rice’s sentiment: law-abiding gun owners stand a better chance against an active harmer than unarmed students. On the other side, people find that allowing concealed-carry permit holders to carry their firearms can have a negative impact on violence in the community. 

A working paper updated this year by the National Bureau of Economic Research concludes that “any beneficial effects from gun carrying are outweighed by the increases in violent crime that these laws stimulate,” noting that right-to-carry laws “substantially raise overall violent crime in the ten years after adoption” and states without right-to-carry laws have seen a greater decline in violent crime rates over the years.

And while students like Rice feel more comfortable knowing law-abiding gun owners can protect themselves on campus, other students report feeling more anxious in class and around campus. 

“Walking alone on campus at night is scary enough,” Lauren Irwin, another freshman living inside Farrand Hall, said. She doesn’t go out alone if she can help it, and she says CU’s gun policy is one of the reasons why. “I just don’t understand how more guns means more safety. Adding more devices thats sole purpose is to kill just makes it easier [for a] situation where more lives are taken, not saved,” Irwin said, noting that a gun owner might incorrectly shoot the wrong person or cause more aggression.

Students, even those with concealed-carry permits, aren’t encouraged to intervene themselves if they witness crime on campus. 

Even in the case of smaller non-violent crimes, a situation can escalate if it’s not handled by law enforcement. Pribble gave the example of a man who was assaulted last week when he tried to stop another individual from stealing bikes on campus. 

“I don’t know what the best way to prevent violence is, but the best I can do is tell people to be aware of their surroundings. If you see something happening,” Pribble said, “reporting is the best thing you can do.”