Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the student was arrested by UOPD. The story has updated to reflect that he went into custody voluntarily.
Editor's note: The Emerald chose not to use the student’s or his family members’ names in this story due to privacy concerns.
Amid social media rumors and paranoia that spread across campus over Mother’s Day weekend, a University of Oregon student faced a mental health crisis. Some students shared his Facebook posts that displayed erratic behavior — typical of mental illness — while some warned each other to stay clear of campus.
Students messaged each other to try to garner more information: Was it true? Was someone planning a shooting on campus?
Hannah Schechtel, a senior sociology major, saw an Instagram post shared by her sister’s friend on Sunday. The person who posted it claimed to have heard from a friend that the student was planning a shooting for Monday.
“I was a little skeptical because obviously it wasn’t through UO Alerts or anything, so that can always be kind of questionable,” she said. “So we took that into account and waited.”
By Sunday afternoon, a UO Alert said that there was no immediate threat to campus and that the social media rumors were inaccurate.
But by Monday morning, Schechtel had seen the original Facebook posts that caused concern. “That made me kind of uneasy because putting a name to the person made it a little more real,” she said.
That’s when Schechtel decided to reach out to the professors of her two Monday classes, saying she felt unsafe coming to campus and wondering about the consequence of missing class. One never responded, the other simply said, “I am holding class today.”
“I’m the kind of person where my anxiety will just fester until there’s a clear answer,” said Schechtel. “There was no clear answer, and that’s the scary part.”
What actually happened?
Late Monday afternoon, a second UO Alert stated again that there was no threat to campus. In addition, the family released a statement saying their family member was in secure care.
The student’s family told the Emerald that he had been showing signs of mental illness several weeks prior. His friends attempted to connect him to resources and got in touch with his family and UOPD several weeks prior.
The student’s brother confirmed that he had been making grandiose, illogical plans to end “cancer, Alzheimer's, crime, sadness, ignorance, money,” as his Facebook post read. The student had planned an event at Rennie’s Landing to tell his friends about his ideas and say goodbye as he arranged to leave UO, with only several weeks until his graduation, and move to a different state to help others in need.
“He’s extraordinarily smart, dean’s list every single semester, straight A’s and A-pluses,” his brother told the Emerald.
“He just wants to save the world,” his father added.
Rennie’s had initially welcomed the student to share his ideas but after hearing that he was in a mental health crisis, no longer allowed him to speak at the bar, according to his brother. The Emerald reached out to Rennie’s, but owner Nic Kephart declined to comment.
He and his group of friends and brother moved to the lawn outside of Knight Library, where the student spoke with a UOPD officer for over half an hour until CAHOOTS, a mobile mental health crisis assistance team, was able to speak with the student.
“Unfortunately, in this day and age, when mass shootings are common, threats cannot be ignored, regardless of whether they come from people who suffer from mental illness or not,” said Brenton Gicker, a CAHOOTS crisis worker. Gicker was not involved with talking to the student. “However, I think it's a mistake to assume that someone with a history of mental illness is more likely to carry out violence than others.”
The student’s Facebook posts on Friday night revealed the peak of his mental health crisis largely because he felt his first amendment rights had been violated when he was not allowed to host his event at Rennie’s, his brother said.
Because he was non-combative and not posing a threat to himself or others, UOPD could not legally commit him to the hospital for mental health treatment against his will.
Later, however, he went into custody voluntarily and willingly signed paperwork to seek treatment, which kept him in the hospital during the week.
His brother said he felt like UOPD and CAHOOTS did everything they could to help his family member. The officer involved was “in our family’s eyes, a hero, an absolute angel,” the student’s brother said. “We were scared that my brother was going to leave, and we would maybe never see him again.”
Rumors continued to spread on social media, however, even as the student was receiving mental health treatment and UO Alerts attempted to quell the discussion.
“Instead of listening to [the UO Alerts],” his brother said, students “just kept perpetuating this idea that he was going to do something, which was never said [or] written — there was no validity to it whatsoever.”
The social media storm
Social media played a major role in the commotion, with students, parents and professors seeing varying posts with different levels of information. Schechtel, the senior who decided not to attend class on Monday, said her mom tried to get in touch with the university to get more information but never heard a concrete answer.
UOPD didn’t send out a UO Alert until Sunday afternoon, but rumors and fear had been piling up for almost two days.
Kelli Matthews, a UO School of Journalism professor who specializes in social media and crisis communication, said the initial alert may have lacked the clarity it needed to ensure students felt safe. She teaches her students that social media can be like adding fuel to a fire in some situations.
“I think that social media can certainly provide a lot of opportunity to get information out very quickly,” she said. “Unfortunately, it can also be really damaging and create a lot of confusion and unneeded concern.”
Lori Shontz, another SOJC professor who has researched how journalists cover mass shootings, said that she talked with many students who said they didn’t trust the UO Alerts and trusted their friends more. She said she hopes students learn to think critically before they post and share things on social media.
“The question that I teach students to ask all the time is, ‘How do you know that?’” Shontz said. “I think it’s a good question for everyone. When you see something on social media, how do you know that? What makes you think that this is a threat?”
While some students and faculty said they felt like UO Alerts lacked information and clarity, Marcus Langford, associate dean of students, said that in the future, he wants students to trust the university to communicate clearly and quickly while investigating the situation at hand.
“I think that’s what our mechanisms allowed us to do, and I think that’s what we would do again,” he said.
Langford said the university does everything in its power to keep students safe. “Know and trust that the institution really is looking out for you and has your best interest at heart,” he said.
He said that if students see something alarming, they should do something about it. Students can call 9-1-1 in emergency situations or report concerns to the UOPD non-emergency number at 541-346-2919.
They can also visit the dean of students’ website for information on assisting students of concern and getting connected to resources, including trained crisis intervention staff that hosts drop-in hours at the dean of students office every weekday.