Amy Gervich looks at Plattsburgh High School out of the windows of the North Country Teacher Resource Center in Sibley Hall. She followed the police sirens into this room March 30 and monitored the school her 14-year-old son Jacques goes to, thinking the worst might be happening right across the street.
By Aleksandra Sidorova
Editor’s note: Some passages within the article were reconstructed based on accounts obtained through interviews and were not personally witnessed by the reporter.
Plattsburgh Police Department received a report of an active shooter at Plattsburgh High School the morning of Thursday, March 30. The threat turned out to be false, but real were the worry and fear at Sibley Hall, the SUNY Plattsburgh building closest to the school and a community hub serving some of its most vulnerable populations.
At 9:27 a.m., while in his office, University Police Chief Patrick Rascoe heard a calm transmission from Plattsburgh Police Department, stating there were seven active shooter victims in a PHS bathroom.
Rascoe came out of his office and yelled down the hall of the station, “Is the City Police drilling today?” They were not.
UP Officer Conrad LaVarnway transmitted that he was on his way to the school. It is a 45-second drive from the station.
LaVarnway was the first at the scene by at least 30 seconds, arriving at 9:28 a.m. When he entered the school, it went into lockdown. LaVarnway began looking for signs of an active shooter — alarms, smoke and panic — but saw none. All seemed normal.
Rascoe donned his vest, identification jacket and radio and queued up an emergency notification that there may be a shooter at PHS. He was out of the station by 9:29 a.m. — a minute and a half after the initial call.
When Rascoe arrived, the school was no longer under lockdown. In the main office, the first room to his right, he saw the staff. Rascoe knocked on the office window and asked, “What’s going on?”
The staff responded, “I don’t know. You tell me.”
Rascoe became confident the threat was false. He was almost certain of it toward the end of the responders’ secondary search of all locked areas at the school, including the bathrooms. At 9:37 a.m., Rascoe made it to the school’s auditorium and notified the Plattsburgh PD of a “preliminary clear.”
“We hit all the bathrooms off the hallway and knew there was nobody injured in the bathroom and this was likely a false report,” Rascoe said. “We radioed that information out of the building to the City PD, but the whole world was coming. State Police were coming, sheriff’s department was coming — everybody was en route.”
SUNY’s Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Reporting procedure, also known as the Clery Act, requires colleges to “Immediately notify the campus community upon the confirmation of a significant emergency.” Total confirmation is required before an “all clear” signal can be sent.
It wasn’t until 9:54 a.m., almost half an hour after police cars started lining up outside the school, when Rascoe stepped out and drafted the alert the whole campus would receive.
“Local police agencies are investigating a false report of an active shooter at Plattsburgh High School. There is no shooter. There are no injuries. This was a false report,” the alert read.
Half of the UP squad was undergoing training in South Plattsburgh, so its remaining three officers responded to the threat.
“I am really proud of my officers,” Rascoe said. “All of us were in the building within three minutes, without hesitation.”
Two weeks prior, March 13, Rascoe and every other law enforcement agency in the North County had been notified by the FBI of a “very large increase” in swatting, or prank calling with the intention to bring a large number of police to a particular place, across the nation. Already, more than 220 schools in New York state have been targeted, and PHS was one of 36 swatted March 30.
This information, combined with the fact that City Police’s report was the only one coming in out of all possible channels, subconsciously made Rascoe doubt the validity of the threat. But three days after the lethal shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, it was all real.
A week later, Rascoe wonders, “Should I have stopped at the door and then assigned people and sent them on their way?”
“Would it have been better to send the message to the campus about an unconfirmed report of an active shooter and then follow up as soon as practicable, as soon as you could? That’s a very difficult thing for me to send a message from an authority with a speculation,” Rascoe said. “My biggest worry is to cause panic, but in this case, the presence of so many police cars and the way that, through social media, so many people found out so quickly, it’s making me challenge whether or not it’s a better idea to send an unconfirmed report, just so people have information that can be somewhat accurate.”
As the chief of UP, Rascoe has the responsibility to notify the campus of emergencies. But as one of the first responders to an emergency, “there is a responsibility to go after the threat.” He complied with SUNY policy and did not take it upon himself to report an unconfirmed threat, but he knew people in Sibley could see and hear the commotion.
“Unfortunately, Sibley is right there. They can hear the sirens, they can look out their windows — it’s a wall of windows — and they can see all the police cars,” Rascoe said, referring to the clear view of PHS from the North Country Teachers Resource Center. “They were in a fishbowl, watching this unfold. How could they not feel the way they felt?”
Plattsburgh High School is just across the road from Sibley Hall. Thursday morning, police cars were parked in layers.
When Amy Gervich, lecturer in childhood education, heard the sirens, she walked down the hall to the NCTRC and watched it all unfold. Police cars were parked in layers at the school, and officers with rifles ran into the high school her 14-year-old son Jacques attends and her friends work in.
“I knew it wasn’t a drill, and I knew it could only mean one thing, because there’s only one reason why that many law enforcement officers would be coming so fast with all their weapons — so quickly — to a school,” Gervich said. “There’s only one reason.”
Gervich had come even closer to a real shooting almost exactly 16 years ago — April 16, 2007 — when her husband Curt was working on his doctorate at Virginia Tech. Gervich taught at an elementary school in Blacksburg, Virginia. She had held herself together in front of her class of 6-year-olds, some children of the officers responding to the shooting 40 minutes away. Now, every time Gervich is in a classroom on the SUNY Plattsburgh campus or a school in the surrounding area, the first thing she thinks about is how she would keep students safe “if something were to happen.”
“I was thinking, but it wasn’t just Virginia Tech that I was thinking about. I was thinking about Nashville, I was thinking about Parkland, I was thinking about Columbine,” Gervich said. “I don’t think my experience [at Blacksburg] impacted me Thursday. It just affects my life every time I go into a school or a classroom.”
Stella Miller, a student at SUNY Plattsburgh, wrote a letter to the Student Association describing her experience that morning in Sibley. Attempts to schedule an interview with Miller have been unsuccessful.
Miller’s letter describes how, while she was in class, she began to hear sirens. Moments later, her professor excused herself from class to “check on a family member who teaches at the high school.” The class found out through social media that police were responding to a reported shooter threat. Immediately, they barricaded themselves, covering the windows with pizza boxes that the class would have used for an activity.
“We sat for what was probably another 20 minutes, but felt like an eternity, waiting. Wondering just how many of our community’s children were being slaughtered next door. Wondering if we were next,” Miller’s letter read.
In her letter, Miller describes that after the event, she went to her car and cried. She went on with the rest of her day feeling “like I was sleepwalking.”
“Luckily, I’ve processed it and moved on, but I know that some of my classmates and friends are having a harder time,” Miller’s letter read.
Denise Simard, dean of the School of Education, Health and Human Services, was in the hallway talking to a colleague when she heard more sirens than usually respond to a drill. The more they talked, the more sirens they heard.
“In some ways, we become a little immune to it,” Simard said. “The only way we recognized it on Thursday was more sirens than usual.”
Simard ran to the exit closest to the NCTRC and contacted UP. She asked what was going on, but the dispatcher was unable to give her an answer. Simard then took matters into her own hands and exercised an “abundance of caution.” She notified the Child Care Center of what she was seeing.
Child Care Center Director Sally Girard wrote in an email that the center has a shelter in place protocol they call the “‘quiet mouse game’ so as to not frighten the children.” Girard wrote that both children and staff “did beautifully” sheltering according to the protocol while police investigated the threat.
Simard grabbed an Allen wrench to lock the doors that don’t lock automatically, nor can be locked with a key. She secured the building, stopping by classrooms and telling students to be alert. It took four minutes to lock three sets of double doors within the entryway closest to Simard’s office.
But some, like Associate Professor of Teacher Education Michelle Bonati, thought the danger was right at Sibley. Bonati was working in her office when she heard noises in the lobby area. When Bonati walked out to see what was going on, Simard announced an unscheduled lockdown.
“And I could tell by the way she was saying it, something real was happening,” Bonati said.
Bonati closed her office door, pulled her window blinds down and hid on the floor behind her desk — a practice she learned as a former high school teacher. Bonati heard banging noises, which she later found out was people in the building “attempting to close the doors.” Right out her office window, she saw someone run past, carrying a gun. She would only later find out it was a police officer. Bonati said it was “very upsetting” to not know what was going on.
Bonati remained in hiding for almost half an hour, until she received Rascoe’s “all-clear” notification by email. In that time, she was texting her husband, hoping she would see him and their dog again.
“I was very worried that something bad was about to happen at our building,” Bonati said. “I was concerned that people in our community were going to be harmed, and that I might be harmed, and that we would just be another statistic of gun violence in our country.”
Many vulnerable communities call Sibley their home: children as young as 6 months old, professionals, both practicing and in-training, and patients with Alzheimer’s or traumatic brain injuries. The UFirst Credit Union branch on Rugar Street almost a mile away went into lockdown when the high school did, but Sibley did not.
“We are unique. We’re not just an academic building, we’re not a dining hall, we’re not a residence hall — we’re a community hub,” Simard said. “We have that obligation to protect those who entrust us with their care during the day.”
Emotions among students, faculty and staff were running high.
“It can be really scary,” Gervich said. “I almost had to call an ambulance for a student who was having such a difficult time with the idea that somebody could have been in Sibley Hall.”
Bonati, Gervich and Simard wished to have gotten a notice, even if it didn’t specify the threat.
“Everyone has responded really, really well. It was as close as we can get without it being real,” Simard said.
Christy Minck, assistant director of counseling services and a licensed mental health counselor, visited Sibley Thursday, March 30; Friday, March 31; and Monday, April 3, to debrief with the teaching department and offer crisis counseling.
College President Alexander Enyedi came with Minck to address students Thursday, and Provost Anne Herzog accompanied Minck Friday.
“Christy [Minck] has been amazing through this,” Simard said.
Minck said she saw a “wide array of experiences” among the people she met with at Sibley, including fright, shock, anxiety, frustration or anger. All these emotions are “perfectly natural,” Minck said.
At her sessions, Minck not only debriefed with participants, but told them about the mental health support resources available on campus: counseling services at the Student Health and Counseling Center, where she works, and the online Student Assistance Program. Additionally, participants exchanged not only their experiences, thoughts and feelings, but ideas for how the campus can move forward from this incident.
“I think that really helps people heal, when they’re really thinking about making change for the better,” Minck said. “They were coming up with some really great suggestions right from the very beginning.”
Minck said the most helpful thing one can do to support their community members is to listen to them.
Enyedi also addressed the campus in a mass email sent March 30 at 11:29 a.m.
“This morning’s false report of an incident at nearby Plattsburgh High School was disturbing and traumatizing to many of us. Simply seeing emergency responders en route and on the scene at the school evokes deep emotions,” the email read. “In today’s environment at schools across the nations, this is understandable. As a campus, it is a reminder to care for each other at all times.”
SA President Taiba Azeem addressed the “regretful situation” in an Executive Council meeting April 3, stating she is happy there are conversations on campus on the topic. Azeem acknowledged students’ experiences were “mentally jarring and emotionally traumatizing.”
The incident came up in discussion at the teaching department’s monthly meeting the day after. Bonati said Gervich started making a list of the expressed safety needs, ideas and deficiencies. After the meeting, Bonati and Gervich drafted a statement, which more than 110 faculty and staff signed on in agreement, which was presented and discussed at the Faculty Senate meeting Tuesday, April 4.
“We didn’t want to lose momentum on the conversation,” Bonati said.
The statement expressed that, ultimately, neither students nor faculty were sure of what to do in the situation they found themselves in. The statement demanded “clear protocols for emergency situations,” notifications of potential emergencies even if they don’t specify the threat, and emergency training for faculty and staff. It also asked administration to “communicate an action plan for these demands” by today, April 14. In compliance with this demand, there will be an after-action analysis with Emergency Management Director Michael Caraballo today.
“I don’t want anyone to think that administration isn’t taking this serious,” Gervich said. “I do feel as though we’re being heard, which feels good.”
Associate Professor of Political Science Raymond Carman was not on campus when police received the threat — Thursdays, he works from home. As chair of Faculty Senate, he was able to provide a “venue” for those affected to share experiences, present questions and complaints and discuss the incident “while it was fresh in everyone’s minds.”
“It was really great to speak at Faculty Senate and share our concerns and our demands,” Gervich said. “I’m hoping that there’s now a catalyst.”
To Carman, the incident showed the university’s connection with the surrounding community.
“It reminds us of the fact that the campus community — the college — is centered in the community around us,” Carman said.
Rascoe addressed the concerns and demands presented at the Faculty Senate meeting, saying they were all reasonable.
“Hopefully, the result of all this is a better plan and a safer campus,” Rascoe said. “Never let an emergency go to waste.”