Editor's note: The Emerald chose not to use the student’s or his family members’ names or personal details in this story due to privacy concerns.
Over Mother’s Day weekend, rumors of a shooting threat against the University of Oregon went viral. Anxiety settled over campus in the days between the first social media posts made on Thursday, May 9 about the alleged shooting-to-come and the statement from University of Oregon Police Department declaring the threat false four days later.
UOPD did not send out the UO Alert until the afternoon of Sunday, May 12, three days after beginning its investigation into the UO student who was the supposed perpetrator of the threat.
According to UOPD Chief Matthew Carmichael, UOPD chose to stay silent through most of the weekend in an effort to avoid spreading misinformation. The campus-wide alert was the culmination of three days of investigation, contact with the student and those close to him and collaboration with multiple university departments.
But in the meantime, rumors and uncertainty had mounted. Some professors made class attendance optional for the following Monday, some student groups cancelled events and some students stayed away from campus. Though the threat turned out to be false, the fear was very real for many.
“As a community, it’s acceptable to become fearful,” said UOPD Chief Matthew Carmichael, speaking about the choice to declare the suspect not a threat. “[The statement] doesn’t diminish how you feel. The fact that I say there is no threat doesn’t mean you can’t feel threatened.”
Carmichael added that it is understandable how students’ fears would not fade immediately without fully understanding the work that went into declaring the situation not a threat.
“I’m not able to share [in a UO Alert] the totality of the work that goes into coming to a resolution where we clearly say there is not a threat,” Carmichael said.
On Sunday, May 12, a group of department leaders including UOPD, Safety and Risk Services, Student Life and UO Communications chose to send the alert after groups were considering cancelling events and others were deciding not to attend Monday’s classes, according to UO spokeswoman Molly Blancett.
“There was no way to know the true breadth of the awareness of the misinformation or the related concern. The university's basic practice is to not message about something that is NOT happening to avoid creating worse confusion,” Blancett wrote in a statement to the Emerald.
The UOPD statement released that Sunday, however, did not include much information about how the department arrived at its conclusion.
Here’s how the university and the UOPD assessed the purported threat, according to UOPD records.
On Thursday, May 9, the UOPD contacted the student’s mother regarding a request she made to have his well-being and safety checked. That phone call was the first in a series of conversations between the UOPD and various people, including the student’s mother, brother, aunt and roommate, who were all concerned. What followed was a three-day investigation involving two UOPD officers and one EPD officer.
The student met with officers directly twice. All three officers reported that though he was experiencing mental health issues, he did not pose a threat to himself or others. The officers called for assistance from Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS), a mobile crisis intervention team operating in Eugene and Springfield. The student did not accept the group’s help, but representatives from CAHOOTS who responded agreed that he was not dangerous. The student eventually accepted a ride to the hospital on Sunday, May 12, where he voluntarily began mental health treatment.
“If there is a member of our community that’s in distress, they are equally as important as what we feel about the messages they are sharing,” Carmichael said. UOPD has called for CAHOOTS support in the field over 70 times since September 2018, according to Carmichael.
UOPD was in touch with friends, family and the student on each day after the initial report on Friday, May 9 but reported they did not have a reason to arrest or detain the student. According to Carmichael, in some cases accused people are merely distraught or unstable and in need of services the police cannot provide.
“That action sometimes resembles a criminal investigation, but it’s not,” Carmichael said, speaking of the weekend’s response. “The assessment is to look at what was shared with us specifically, and we’ll talk in terms of what the message was, how it was perceived, and to work to identify the facts. Is this factually coming from a particular individual, or is this a third person, ‘I heard somebody say’? When it’s [from] the particular [person], we always make an attempt or effort to work with that individual to have a conversation.”
A full-length police report detailing the events of the weekend of May 12 from the perspective of multiple UOPD officers is publicly available upon request — understanding the role of the university is not as simple. Information on university threat response policies can be read about in detail on the Safety and Risk Services website, but information on how those policies look in execution, these events included, is sparse.
When the Office of the Dean of Students was brought into the loop on Saturday, May 11, a number of other groups were contacted. Safety and Risk Services, the President’s Office, the Dean’s Office and University Communications were all involved, according to Kris Winter, UO associate vice president and dean of students. The Behavioral Evaluation & Threat Assessment, or BETA Team, which is comprised of representatives from Safety & Risk Services, the Office of the Provost, Student Life, UOPD, Human Resources, and the Office of Civil Rights Compliance and is trained to assess the risk of workplace and campus target violence, was notified as well but did not take action in the response efforts, Winter said.
All of the involved departments tried to keep on one line of communication. “It’s people keeping each other informed whenever there’s an emergency or crisis, the best thing we can do is communicate with each other,” Winter said. “People are talking to each other, not holding information to themselves.”
According to Winter, each department involved in the weekend’s actions was in communication every one to two hours.
In assessing a crisis situation, there is no one-size-fits-all protocol for response, Winter said. The nature of the situation determines which departments become involved and in what capacity they act.
“In this case specifically, the real challenge that we saw was we have a student, an individual student, who is in the middle of a very challenging mental health crisis,” Winter said. “And it’s a tough position to be in from this perspective of how do you protect that individual’s privacy and acknowledge that even though a threat is perceived it may not be a real threat, the perceptions and the feelings that people are having are really, really real.”
As the frequency of mass shootings steadily rises, schools, media organizations and departments like UOPD are creating contingency plans.
“I think sometimes when people can see when you have a system in place, they will trust that more than when they don’t know what’s there to support them,” Winter said.
In attempting to maintain community safety, UO put systems in place allowing students to report suspicious people who may not pose an immediate or obvious threat. The BETA page on the UO website has a form where students can report concerns, whether it be suspicious behavior suggesting future violence or even suicidal tendencies.
Reporting using these resources helps groups like UOPD and BETA prevent campus violence as well as provide help and support to distraught individuals, Carmichael said. He urged students to report suspicious action to BETA or the UOPD instead of posting it on social media.
Crisis response is complex, and there is no one answer to handling every situation. As such, every incident is handled with communication, case by case decision making, and a mindful approach, according to Carmichael.
“As a community, we have to be mindful of each other,” Carmichael said. “Remember, we’re talking about people, and we’re talking about each other.”