False alarm

When student Lisandra Hernandez heard that a suspected gunman was near Cooper Hall Tuesday afternoon, she didn’t believe it.

“There was nothing going on, so I thought it was a lie,” said the sophomore majoring in biochemistry. “It’s USF. If I were at UF I would have believed them. Nothing happens here. It’s very uneventful.”

It wasn’t quite a lie. University Police (UP) was notified around 2 p.m. that a person was spotted near Cooper Hall wielding a gun. The supposed gunman turned out to be an ROTC student out of uniform carrying a dummy rifle he had been using for water training.

Lt. Colonel James Botter, professor of military science, said it was an “honest mistake” by the student, who was uninformed of the rules. Botter oversees the training for ROTC students and said the blame lies on the ROTC department.

“He didn’t know the rules, I’m not going to hold him responsible for that,” he said. “That’s our fault.”

The student was not punished, Botter said.

He said all of the ROTC training is done off-campus except for Combat Water Survival Training. The student in question was participating in this training in the Campus Recreation Center pool.

A drowning prevention class, the training requires cadets to wear their gear and uniforms in the water and take them off quickly.

After participating in the class, the student changed out his wet uniform and walked to his car in civilian clothes carrying the dummy rifle, Botters said. It is against the rules to carry rifles when not in uniform, he said.

“On those days when we do that training on campus the procedure is to notify the pool and notify the police department,” Botters said. “(Tuesday) we notified the pool, but we had a new staff member who failed to follow through notifying the police.”

Botters said it was a mistake and the ROTC personnel will be retrained.

“Cadets are not allowed to take (the dummy rifles) home. They are not allowed to walk around campus with them,” Botters said. “They were returning it to the building after they used it, but prudent measures would have been to put it in a bag, but since that didn’t occur and we didn’t notify the police, that is how it occurred.”

At 2:25 p.m., students who signed up for MoBull, a University text message alerting service, received a text message telling them to avoid the Cooper Hall area.

About fifteen minutes later, students were told the situation had “cleared.”

After an investigation by UP, the student was located. He no longer had the dummy rifle but admitted that he was carrying it, UP spokeswoman Lt. Meg Ross said.

At the scene, UP was assisted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, USF Parking Enforcement and AlliedBarton.

Parking Enforcement joined Public Safety in February, said Manuel Lopez, Parking and Transportation Service director.

Their primary role is still parking enforcement, said Bruce Benson, assistant vice president of Public Safety. The only difference is they are a part of Public Safety.

All of the Parking Enforcement officers have a background in safety. For instance, some are retired police or military officers. They are not trained to do police work, but were trained in traffic direction and crowd control.

“They are additional eyes and ears in many ways when we have a crime we are aware of or crisis,” he said. “They can actually pitch in and be of assistance in actual operational ways sometimes, which they did here.”

Parking Enforcement was able to help establish a perimeter around the area. UP, Parking Enforcement and AlliedBarton are all on the same radio channel.

“So if they had seen the person we were looking for, with a rifle, they would have been able to radio in immediately and get police and security to take action,” Benson said.

AlliedBarton responded well and nearly every officer on duty and their supervisors responded to the scene, Benson said. They were there to back up and assist UP.

The false alarm did alert Public Safety to some problems with communication to the students, Benson said.

“We still have some glitches we need to work out with the notification system,” he said. “There were a few e-mail messages that went into people’s junk mail. We are tracking those things down.”

Daniel Smith, a student majoring in computer engineering, said the message was ambiguous.

“I would have liked more details,” he said. “Everyone should have the right to know the complete information.”

In a letter to the University, President Judy Genshaft said it was especially important to respond quickly to the situation because of the tragedy at Virginia Tech last year and that gave USF a chance to test its emergency alert system.

“This false alarm provided USF with the opportunity to test our systems, to ensure that if this were a real crisis, our University responds in an immediate and professional manner,” she wrote. “This was accomplished definitively and brought peace of mind to our University community, and for that I am grateful.”

In a letter to Genshaft, Botters wrote that this incident was especially embarrassing for the ROTC department.

“I can guarantee this will not happen again with U.S. Army ROTC Cadets at USF,” he wrote. “Again, I am very sorry for the inconvenience, anxiety and disruption I caused on your campus.”