Nearly an hour passed before University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH) officials dispatched emergency notification to students and faculty after fatal shootings allegedly committed by a professor, raising new questions about campus-based alert systems.
University President David Williams sent an eMail to faculty and students Feb. 15—three days after the shootings that killed three people and injured three others—and said campus police responded to the gunfire within minutes, but the university community was not alerted via text message or eMail.
“… Some of you are understandably troubled about the speed with which a text message alert was sent following the shootings,” Williams said in his open letter to UAH students and faculty. “As any institution would do after an incident like this, our university will conduct a complete examination of the emergency response. How to more effectively use the university’s text message system in the midst of a fast-moving, life-threatening situation will certainly be part of that review.”
Colleges nationwide have improved notification systems in the wake of the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech University, using a variety of electronic messaging to warn students and their professors about on-campus violence or oncoming extreme weather.
The need for immediate notification was evident in September 2007, when two Delaware State University students were shot near a campus dining hall, and authorities scrambled to keep students in their dorms and tell the campus community exactly what had transpired. Updates were posted on the school’s web site, but only a sliver of the student body got the message.
Williams stressed that the shootings allegedly committed by Amy Bishop, a Harvard-educated neurobiologist hired by UAH in 2003, were confined to one building, so students and faculty members were not in danger.
“The communication delay didn’t endanger anyone on campus in this instance,” Williams said in his letter. “The tragic incident was over quickly and contained to a single building. But we will learn from this situation and be better for it should we need to use this system in a future crisis.”
Emergency notification experts said colleges and universities are still getting acquainted with text and eMail alert systems, and campus leaders are wary that frequent alerts might delude the importance of emergency messaging.
“The challenge is to decide what’s an event and what isn’t an event,” said Ken Dixon, a spokesman for MIR3, a San Deigo-based company that provides notification technology to about 100 campuses. “It’s a challenge to use this kind of system correctly.”
Dixon said gunfire is among the “no brainer” uses of an emergency alert system, but college officials should be cautious in overusing the alerts to tell students about upcoming campus events like plays and fundraisers.
“If you send out everything, then the students begin to ignore them,” he said. “Colleges should make sure that they wait for something dire, and then send it out.”
Joe DiPasquale, CEO of Regroup.com, a company that provides non-emergency notification for the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa campus, said the UAH shootings should encourage campus officials to test and re-test their text and eMail alerts to make sure they’re ready for the next emergency.
“I think this case has caught people’s attention,” DiPasquale said. “Ideally, things like this would never happen, but because they do, it’s important to be sure your school is prepared.”
Meanwhile, Bishop’s attorney said Feb. 19 that his client is remorseful, but doesn’t remember the shootings of six colleagues.
Roy W. Miller said Amy Bishop, 44, is likely insane and does not remember pulling out a handgun and shooting six colleagues, three fatally, at a biology department faculty meeting one week ago at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
“She just doesn’t remember shooting these folks,” he said.
But he said she is now “aware of what she’s done. She’s very sorry for it.”
He said he has not spoken with her about where she got the gun. Police have said it was not registered to her, and her husband has said he does not know where she got it.
Miller said Bishop breaks down and cries, wanting to see her four children, but is trying to remain strong. Despite facing a possible death sentence, she is still concerned about her professional life and her position at the university.
“She said, ‘Do I still have a job out there?’ She asked me that yesterday,” Miller said. “She said, ‘Do you know if I have a job? I assume they fired me. Did they fire me?'”
University officials have said she remains on the payroll, but her $83,000-a-year job was ending at the end of the semester because she was denied tenure.
Bishop is charged with capital murder and attempted murder and is being held without bond.
Miller told the Associated Press in a Feb. 18 interview that Bishop has severe mental problems and appears to have paranoid schizophrenia.
He said Bishop’s failure to get tenure at the university was likely a key to the shootings.
Bishop, who has a doctorate from Harvard University and has taught at UAH since 2003, apparently was incensed that what she viewed as a lesser-known school rejected her for what amounted to a lifetime job.
“Obviously she was very distraught and concerned over that tenure,” Miller said. “It insulted her and slapped her in the face, and it’s probably tied in with the Harvard mentality. She brooded and brooded and brooded over it, and then, ‘bingo.'”
Bishop’s husband, James Anderson, told ABC’s Good Morning America he also thought the failed tenure battle was involved.
“Only someone who has been intricately involved with that fight understands what a tough, long, hard battle [it is]. … That, I would say, is part of the problem, is a factor,” he said in an interview that aired Feb. 19.
Anderson said his wife had never taken any anger management courses, even though prosecutors asked for that when she was charged with starting a fight over a booster seat at a restaurant in 2002. Anderson told ABC he didn’t think she needed the course. Bishop admitted to the assault in court, and the charges were dismissed six months later.
Miller said Bishop seems “very cogent” in jail, where he has spent more than three hours with her over two days, yet she also seems to realize she has a loose grip on reality.
“She gets at issue with people that she doesn’t need to and obsesses on it,” Miller said. “She won’t shake it off, and it’s really [something of] no great consequence.”
Bishop, who claims an IQ of 180, can’t explain the shooting and doesn’t remember anything about it, he said.
The chief prosecutor in Huntsville said he would not oppose a mental evaluation for Bishop.
“In this case as in all cases, if they want to start talking about a mental defense, then have at it. We’ll be ready when it comes to court,” said Madison County District Attorney Robert Broussard.
Miller said he expects prosecutors to seek the death penalty, but Broussard said his office hasn’t decided whether to seek Bishop’s execution or a sentence of life without parole if she is convicted.
“We’ll wait until we have every piece of evidence in front of us to decide on that,” Broussard said.
He said investigators had yet to review evidence about Bishop’s troubled past, including her fatal shooting of her younger brother in 1986. Authorities in Massachusetts ruled that shooting accidental, though State Police officials said Feb. 19 they will review their agency’s investigation.
Since the Alabama shootings, there have been questions about why Bishop did not face any charges a quarter-century ago after she fled the house after killing her brother and allegedly pointed the gun at people at a nearby car dealership.
In Bishop’s only public comments since the Alabama shooting, the professor said the shooting “didn’t happen. There’s no way.”
“What about the people who died?” a reporter asked as she was led to a police car hours after the killings.
“There’s no way. They’re still alive,” she responded.
The shooting decimated the university’s biology department: Of 14 members, six were killed or wounded, one is jailed, and the rest are dealing with the shock and loss of colleagues.
Two of those shot remained hospitalized in critical condition Feb. 19, while another who was shot in the chest has been released.
Mourners hugged and cried Feb. 18 at a memorial service for biology department chairman Gopi K. Podila. Funeral services were scheduled Feb. 19 for Adriel Johnson and Feb. 20 for Maria Ragland Davis, professors in the department who died in the gunfire.
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