‘Failed us’: Students protest Pitt’s delay in sending emergency alerts during hoax active shooter threat


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Protestors chant and hold signs in front of the Cathedral of Learning Friday afternoon.

By Punya Bhasin, News Editor

About 100 students gathered on the lawn at the Cathedral of Learning to host a “die-in” following Pitt’s delay in sending emergency alerts during a recent hoax shooter incident on campus. They chanted “When student lives are under attack, stand up, fight back,” while holding signs with phrases including “Committing to Pitt = committing to an early grave.” 

At around 11:15 p.m. on Monday, Pitt and City police responded to reports of shots fired at Hillman Library. This threat was ultimately determined to be “unfounded,” and there were no injuries. However, Pittsburgh Public Safety said a City police officer used a gun to gain access to a locked door in Hillman Library. This is the second report of an active shooter near campus that has turned out to be false in about two weeks. 

It took more than an hour after police evacuated the library for Pitt to send out an Emergency Notification Service alert. They sent out a blank alert before sending out another one that clarified that the active shooter threat was “unfounded and false.” Ted Fritz, the vice chancellor for public safety and emergency management, said the messages were both “delayed and flawed” while officers went to Mervis Hall, and that the University is reviewing the system and retraining its staff through “exercises,” which they started last week. 

The die-in, organized by the group Do Better Pitt, had a list of demands in light of the University’s “ridiculous” response. The demands included quickly fixing the flaws within the ENS system, expanding trauma-informed mental health resources on campus, creating a student task force to improve University communication to students and including interim messaging in future ENS notifications. 

During the die-in, students laid down on the ground for 82 minutes to signify the amount of time the University didn’t provide information during the hoax threat.

Zachary Shafer, a sophomore physics and astronomy major who was on the first floor of Hillman on Monday, said due to Pitt’s “radio silence,” his peers relied on Reddit and police scanners to find out necessary information.

“Treating the ENS response failure as a simple ‘We’ll do better next time’ is completely unacceptable,” Shafer said. “This should be treated like there was an actual threat, and the urgency with which they act to fix this broken system should reflect that.”

Jared Stonesifer, a University Spokesperson, said the University is committed to fixing the “shortcomings” of the ENS messaging system. 

“While police did rapidly respond to the false alarm of a potential active killer, we acknowledge unacceptable shortcomings in the use of the Emergency Notification System, and we are committed to doing better,” Stonesifer said. “The University has begun a major review of the procedures, policies and tools we use to communicate during emergencies, and we are immediately making the necessary changes to ensure accurate information is available to our Pitt community in a timely manner.”

At the start of the protest, Student Government Board announced that they are hosting a town hall alongside Graduate and Professional Student Government and College of General Studies Student Government on Monday from 6 to 8 p.m. in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room where students can ask questions to Pitt’s administration.

Liliana Orozco, the president of Pitt’s chapter of Turning Point USA, stood on the steps of the Cathedral along with a small group of people. She held a sign saying “I Stand with Pitt Police.” Orozco criticized the protesters for wanting to “defund the police,” although this wasn’t a goal of the demonstration.

“I think that we need to fund the police, not defund them,” Orozco said. “I think that they didn’t do anything wrong, they did everything that they were supposed to do.”  

Orozco said she thinks there’s a problem with the ENS system, not Pitt Police. However, Chief of Pitt Police James Loftus took ownership of the “delayed and flawed” ENS messaging, saying at a Tuesday morning press conference that he “regrets” the delay. 

Orozco said there should be interim messaging, which is the “only thing I [Orozco] agree with” in regards to the message of the die-in. 

“I think there should be, but I think that they’re getting to that as soon as they possibly can,” Orozco said. 

Devon Batty, a first-year law, criminal justice and society major and one of the organizers of the die-in, confronted Orozco’s sign and the other people in her group, saying they were being “extremely insensitive.”

“What they were saying was just so extremely insensitive, especially with how extreme the safety concerns we have are,” Batty said. “They’re supposed to be a part of our student body, and they don’t have to support us, but they also don’t have to heckle us and take pictures of us, it’s just ignorant and uneducated of them.”  

Keri-Anne Laing, a resident assistant at Pitt, attended the die-in and said she felt compelled to use her voice and stand up against the “gross incompetence” of the Pitt ENS system.  

“I had residents that asked me if there was an active shooter and this isn’t just one instance, multiple times this has happened,” Laing, a senior political science major said. “It’s just glaringly obvious of a systemic issue in terms of Pitt safety and their ability to adequately and competently notify their students of an emergency.”

Laing added that when “distressing” incidents occur on campus, including the Monday night hoax shooter incident, Pitt tells students to talk to their RA, which she finds frustrating. 

“They tell people to run to your RA, but I shouldn’t have to do that because you’re incompetent and your system doesn’t work,” Laing said. “I think it’s just necessary to revisit some of these policies, because as a resident assistant, especially working with first-year students, you know, what comfort can I bring to them?”

At the end of the die-in, Shafer said the University must make “rapid” and “significant” changes to the ENS system to avoid having blood on their hands in the future. 

“Pitt’s administration has failed us,” Shafer said. “There may not have been a real danger this time, but if there was then there would be blood on their hands for this response, and if there aren’t rapid, significant changes to the alerts system, next time there will be.”