Anyone who follows the news can understand the terror Christi Clancy and her 14 students felt when this all-campus alert lit up their cellphones on Feb. 21: “Beloit College is experiencing an emergency situation on campus. Stay where you are, lock your door, and stay away from windows until further instructions are provided.”
“Take cover,” continued the warning, read aloud to the class by one of the students. “This is NOT a test.”
It’s impossible to hear those words without imagining a madman with an assault rifle. You think Sandy Hook, you think Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, you think Aurora and Columbine.
“At first, we all just hid under the tables. We all wanted to be together. We were thinking where would we want to be if a gunman stormed through the door,” says Clancy, who lives in Whitefish Bay, Wis., and teaches English at Beloit.
The lockdown began at 12:36 p.m. A follow-up alert at 12:53 made it clear that the threat actually was a block away from campus, where Beloit police had responded to a call of an armed suspect in a domestic dispute. It wasn’t until 3:13 p.m., after the man was arrested, that the all-clear signal was given.
Those first 17 minutes were the worst. The threat could be anything and anywhere.
Clancy says she cannot think of a time in life when she was more frightened. Knowing now that the college was never in real danger, she wonders if she overreacted.
“I was mostly scared because I was in charge. It was my class. I felt like I had this role I was supposed to play. You think about Sandy Hook, whether you should or shouldn’t,” she says.
In a Facebook post that afternoon, she wrote, “The students cried and sent texts to their parents telling them they loved them, and we huddled in the dark room with the doors locked and the light off. And I thought about the teacher at Sandy Hook who put her students in lockers and I wanted to do that. Find lockers for these beautiful, scared young people, keep them safe from bullets and craziness and fright.”
Clancy realized the classroom door needed to be locked from the outside. One of the students, Jon Hammon’15, bravely volunteered to go out in the corridor with Clancy’s key. He came back inside and pulled the door shut.
Everyone ducked down in the corner on the floor.
“Any sound we heard in the hallway seemed so loud. The footsteps never sounded more ominous,” Clancy says.
Before texting their parents and close friends, the students quietly discussed how much information they should include. Most decided to express their love but without saying they were on lockdown. They had this odd feeling that the texts and tweets they were sending could show up later on the news if things turned ugly.
When the initial fright had passed, Clancy asked the students to “write down the things you think about while you’re in lockdown.” For some of these young people growing up in today’s America, this was not their first lockdown.
“For a moment, no one dared to make a sound,” wrote Safari Fang’14 who is from China. “I could hear people’s heavy breathing and my own heartbeats, as fast as a hummingbird … I tried to meditate with my eyes open, but I couldn’t focus on my breath.”
Other students wrote:
“When it first happened, I wondered, is this really it?”
“If the shooter comes through the door, am I a clear shot? Would the bullet pierce the table?”
“Should I tell my parents now or later?”
“There’s a very strange progression of emotions as time passes . . . everyone click-click-clicks on their little phones, sounding out alarms and checking on friends. But then people start making jokes, stiff ones at first, followed by little spurts of rugged laughter.”
“Jon Hammon is my hero of the day.”
At one point, Hammon started running the movie Little Miss Sunshine for everyone on his laptop, but the distraction wasn’t working, so he stopped it. When the threat had sufficiently lifted, the students played Pictionary on the blackboard.
Clancy said she doesn’t think it would have helped if she or a student had been armed with a handgun. She feared it would invite violence. And what match would it be against the assault rifles and high-capacity magazines favored by mass murderers?
An emergency alert like this is a rarity at Beloit College. Clancy said she feels safe on the small campus and loves teaching there.
“As terrifying as it was, I was pleased with the way the college handled it, and so were my students. They all said they’d rather be safe than sorry,” she says.
The class had run over its normal time by more than an hour by the time the all-clear was issued. The students finally left the room, now with the added bond of surviving the ordeal together.
Her nerves still on edge, Clancy found a colleague and went out for a beer.
This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and was reprinted with permission.