Schlissel, sorority respond to false shooter report at UM

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
University of Michigan police officers respond with Washtenaw County Sheriff's deputies and the FBI, ATF and U.S. Border Patrol to a report of an active shooter on the University of Michigan campus near Mason Hall in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, March 16, 2019.

In the wake of a false report of an active shooter at the University of Michigan, President Mark Schlissel cited "deficiencies" Monday in how authorities responded to the March 16 incident, while a sorority apologized for popping balloons and setting off three hours of panic. 

"While many aspects of our response went according to plan, we uncovered deficiencies in the activation of our emergency alert system and the distribution of accurate information and instructions that will need to be corrected immediately," Schlissel wrote in a statement.

"We must always strive to be better, safer and more supportive in every way possible, and the feedback we have heard from many of you is a critical component of what we have learned from the incident," he wrote. "There is no doubt we must do more to keep our campus safe, and I assure you we are working on changes that we can implement now and going forward."

After many days of discussing how the situation was handled, Schlissel said UM is "examining all aspects of the emergency alert process — from the modalities we use to communicate to how you sign up for alerts — and have begun an awareness campaign about what to do during an active attacker scenario."

The incident occurred when UM police said they received as many as 20 reports at 4:35 p.m.March 16 of shots fired in Mason Hall, an academic building on the Diag. The reports coincided with a vigil taking place on the Diag in memory of those killed during attacks in two mosques in New Zealand.

That report was followed 37 minutes later by an alert that said the report was unconfirmed.

Officers directed students on the Diag to leave the area, and they searched Mason Hall, which is attached to three other buildings. They confirmed a report of balloon popping in the area where the sounds of shots fired were reported to have been heard. 

Since then, Schlissel said students and campus officials have spent a lot of time discussing the response to the incident.

He acknowledged the trauma the incident inflicted on the community but added that he "heard nothing but praise for how our students and other community members acted during those initial chaotic moments." Schlissel also expressed appreciation to those who are helping the UM community to heal.

Schlissel suggested thatUM students and staff watch the university's digital training resources. He also asked everyone to sign up for emergency alerts.

University of Michigan Mark Schlissel.

The UM Division of Public Safety and Security communicates in many ways during an emergency, including email to all addresses, text messages, phone calls, links from the UM homepage, alerts via the Michigan and DPSS apps, and the DPSS Twitter account (@umichdpss), Schlissel said.

"Please recognize that the only authoritative information during an emergency is communication coming from DPSS," the president said. "There were many false reports during the episode on the 16th spread via social media from non-authoritative sources that contributed to our collective fear and uncertainty."

Sudharsan Srinivasan, a graduate student from Farmington Hills, was not on campus on the day of the incident, but he got numerous alerts via text and phone. He said UM leaders kept the campus community adequately informed of developments.

He also praised Schlissel and other UM leaders for discussing and addressing areas that need improvement.

"Talking about the situation and being open about potential causes is a way to start potential change. You see the same thing happened in New Zealand," Srinivasan said. "That all starts by talking about it and being open."

Meanwhile, the alpha Kappa Delta Phi sorority apologized for popping balloons that day and setting off chaos on campus.

In a letter published Sunday by UM's student newspaper, the Michigan Daily, the sorority expressed regret for its actions and for the delay in issuing an apology for the incident, which occurred during a nearby vigil for victims of the New Zealand mosque shooting.

"We are truly sorry to everyone who feared for their lives and had to experience the traumatic events of that day, especially to our fellow Muslim students and all those who were present at the New Zealand Mosques Solidarity Vigil," the sorority wrote in the letter.

"It is unacceptable to merely pass off our actions as a poorly timed coincidence. To do so would be to ignore the politically charged atmosphere that day and the many serious events on campus that preceded the false alarm. Failure to acknowledge these circumstances would only further enable us to benefit from the privilege that comes with a lack of understanding about the real dangers and fears that many of our fellow peers, students of color and Muslim students live with on a day-to-day basis."

The alert from UM officials, apparently sparked by the popping balloons, set off three hours of fear and anguish on the Ann Arbor campus late that afternoon. Those who scrambled in light of the alert barricaded themselves in classrooms and bathrooms until being assured the threat was false.

 "As part of a large and diverse community of color, we understand that everyone perceives and processes traumatic events in different ways and at different speeds," said the sorority, whose members are predominantly Asian.

"We have used this past week to not only process our feelings of guilt and disbelief, but to also reflect on our mistakes and take responsibility for our actions by reaching out to members of our immediate communities. We take this event as a stark realization that we need to further educate ourselves about Islamophobia, white supremacy and what it means to use our position as A/PIA students to participate in more meaningful coalition building on campus."