"Shelter in place," came the texts and the robocalls on Oct. 6 when I was teaching my morning English class. Someone with a gun had been reported on campus.
I didn't know that at first. The guard who first stopped by my door to tell me to keep my students in place seemed subdued. He made no mention of a gun, and from his demeanor I imagined whatever was happening might just as easily be a medical emergency. I've had students have seizures in class; I know it's important to keep people out of the way when help is needed.
Our class had about a half-hour left. I wanted to keep rolling. Run-ons and comma splices don't teach themselves.
I called on a young woman in back by the window, a student whose attention I usually have to reel in. "I can't concentrate," she told me. "There's all these helicopters outside!" I glanced out our second-floor window but couldn't see for the trees.
That's when text messages started arriving on my students' phones via our campus alert system. A few also received messages from concerned family members who were watching what was happening on TV. It was through these outside sources that we learned of a possible gunman. I felt out of the loop.
Luckily, I teach in a smart classroom. I logged on to a local news station and we watched the drama live-stream via computer projector. My students were getting anxious, and I wanted them quiet and focused. I shuttered the blinds. I turned off the lights. I told them they could stand by the wall where they couldn't be seen from the door. Most did. At some point two SWAT officers with rifles came by and did a head check but told us nothing.
Our lockdown came a day after the FBI and ATF warned of a threat at "an unspecified university near Philadelphia." That threat was posted on 4chan, an anonymous Internet board also used for lesser malfeasances — like uploading celebrity nude photos. More dire was the recent news of shootings in Oregon at Umpqua Community College, which left nine people and the gunman dead — and there would be two more shootings later that week, at Northern Arizona University and Texas Southern University.
For many of my students, guns are a regular part of their lives. I've read countless personal narratives of how gun violence affects them: the drive-by casualties, the friends jailed. A beloved cousin who was shot on the sidewalk as a former student watched helplessly from her front steps.
"Can't you lock the door?" asked the young woman who sits in back. She was in a tight cluster of her peers now.
"The door doesn't lock," I told her, feeling helpless.
"Can't we barricade it?"
I'd already checked. "The door opens into the hall," I said. "We can't barricade it from inside."
In my head I was wryly thinking #ThingsTheyNeverTaughtYouInGradSchool.
I urged my students again to be quiet, to stay away from the door and windows. But crowd-controlling anxious freshmen is like herding cats. I finally received official word about the emergency via a campus robocall to my cellphone a few minutes before 11 a.m.
We waited in our classroom roughly an hour and a half more. I spent that time talking to my students and fielding email messages. One student in my afternoon class wrote: "Is today's class canceled because of the gunman? I just want to be sure before I don't show up." On our projector, my students and I watched a handcuffed suspect being led out of another building. Finally, amid complaints of bursting bladders, I watched my students go.
The class I teach on Tuesdays combines composition with reading across academic disciplines. It's also a course in acquiring college survival skills. Students are trained in comprehension and learning strategies. We talk about theories of metacognition and how the brain processes and stores data, all in hopes my students apply more effective practices to their studies.
In an age when our very thoughts are increasingly winnowed into hashtags and tweets, I struggle to get my students to become deep thinkers capable of focused, sustained inquiry. I try to keep their attention off cellphones and onto the task at hand. But clearly social media has its place in classroom safety.
Later I learned colleagues in other classrooms had begun text-message chains, comparing notes about what was going on. In conversations since, some instructors say they'd like to see metal detectors at every door. Others groan at the thought of reminding our students there's one less place they can feel secure.
On Thursday, when my students and I next met, we discussed what happened. We'd read that no gun had been found, that charges had been dropped. The scare seemed to have bonded them.
Our college's new president held open forums the day after the incident to discuss security. I followed suit, asking my students what they would like to see happen. Already the college is beefing up security, which includes checking IDs at building entryways all day as opposed to after 5 p.m. and on Saturdays, which was the previous standard.
"We need guards with actual guns," one young man suggested.
Temple and Penn have armed police, I told him, but in all my years at the college I couldn't recall seeing an armed security guard. "Hiring better security costs money," I said. "A third of our budget is supposed to come from the city, another third from the state — but that hasn't been the case. Tuition has to make up the rest. How do we pay for it?"
The young man shrugged. Someone again suggested metal detectors, but others said that would only bottleneck entryways. A couple suggested searching bags and backpacks. It became clear to me that what millennials are willing to concede is different than what I am as a Generation Xer.
To be clear, I am not an institutional spokesperson. I'll look to the wisdom of my college's administration about how best to revise policies as threats change in the 21st century. But as a taxpayer and citizen, I want my students to feel secure. One way to help offset budget deficiencies from the city and state might be to dedicate local or state police to cover college security.
Eventually another commotion outside the window caught my students' attention. Great, I thought. Another interruption.
But it was only a hyperactive squirrel, busy building its winter nest. For a moment, I wondered whether I should call physical plant to see if they could knock the distraction away.
Or should I let the squirrel shelter in place?
Winter's coming. I hope it stays.
Kelly McQuain is a poet who teaches English and communication arts at Community College of Philadelphia. Contact him via www.KellyMcQuain.wordpress.com.