Just two days after the Parkland, Florida high school shooting, a colleague appeared at my office door on the Highline College campus and said, “I just heard 6 to 8 shots and people screaming.”
We waved people into our small office building, and then secured the doors. And waited. Campus Security sent out periodic computer pop-ups, texts, and emails with updates – 8 in all, from the first alert to the all-clear. The communication was welcome. A colleague locked in a classroom with her students had a live feed from a local news station playing on the classroom computer.
After dozens of police officers spent two and a half hours going over the college’s 80 acres with a fine-tooth comb – no fewer than 8 rifle-bearing officers looked through the shrubbery in front of our building – no victim(s) and no shooter were found. One campus rumor says that it was lunar new year firecrackers, but I haven’t seen anything that looks like an official report yet.
Less than an hour after my colleague came to my door, I got a text from a friend in Harrisonburg, VA asking if I was okay. Harrisonburg is 2,804 miles away; Google Maps says I can drive there in “41 hours without traffic.” I did a news search about halfway into our lockdown and found a report by a UK news outlet. While I understand that we no longer rely on the Pony Express to deliver news, I was still surprised at the speed the news traveled. Especially when there were no known victims. Just the promise of tragedy was enough to send the news around the world.
What happens when you barricade a bunch of social science faculty in a small space? You get an impromptu interdisciplinary panel discussion on gun violence courtesy of a political scientist, sociologist, and psychologist. I imagine this would make for a popular course.
In my Intro Psych class for this coming week, the topics happen to include the availability heuristic and priming. The availability heuristic tells us that hearing about every mass shooting (or non-shooting as it was on my campus) affects our estimates of violence. Our own non-shooting prompted more than one student or family member of a student to report to journalists that they are considering enrolling only in online classes. Being primed with the Parkland shooting likely influenced the perception of the pops heard on my campus as gunshots and the beginnings of a mass shooting. (The pops may have very well been gunshots and not firecrackers, although the police reported finding no shell casings.)
Even though, in the end, it appears that the students and employees of Highline College were never in any danger, that doesn’t erase the terror that so many felt at the time. One student emailed her professor the next day to say that she hasn’t been able to concentrate on studying because of the trauma of running for her life. About 24-hours later, I received a text from a colleague suggesting what we should do differently if we were to experience this again; she’s still processing it. Normal responses.