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Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
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Eleanor Hoss, a senior in Michigan State University’s nursing program, had just arrived at the rooftop bar of a hotel in downtown East Lansing to celebrate a friend’s birthday Monday night when police cars, fire trucks and emergency vehicles began arriving across the street from all directions. Soon, she saw students pour out of every entrance on every side of the MSU Union, one of the most heavily trafficked buildings on campus. Then, because she is also a resident adviser in the dorms, she began getting messages from her residents and supervisor, making sure everyone was okay.
“We saw hordes of students running out with their hands up,” Hoss told the NewsHour. “I was also trying to make sure everyone I knew was safe.”
As the university went into lockdown, Hoss was able to see everything unfold from her rooftop location, but she also could not leave.
“I felt like a spectator, and I didn’t want to be a spectator,” Hoss said. “The rooftop bar is a three window area, so we could see everything. And we were on lockdown, so we weren’t allowed to leave. So we literally just had to sit there and watch. And it was just terrible.”
WATCH: Michigan State student describes chaos during mass shooting that left three students dead
While sifting through the many false reports circulating that night – including dispatches alluding to multiple shooters – and while also being aware that her location was not well protected, Hoss also cared for her residents.
“We were told to tell our residents to block doors with dressers or whatever objects and to turn their lights off and to hide,” Hoss said. “Two of my residents were actually at the Union when it happened. One of them lost her phone in the scuffle but her roommate had heard from her but she went home. Then another one lost his shoe and his phone [while] running, but he’s been accounted for, so luckily all my residents are safe.”
Flowers left outside the Michigan State University (MSU) Union in East Lansing, Michigan, after a mass shooting on campus killed three students and injured five students, on Feb. 14, 2023. Photo by Campbell Berg.
Campbell Berg, a second year journalism major from Virginia, was at her sorority house on Charles Street, about a five-minute walk from the Union, when she received a text message from her work group chat around 8:25 p.m. It said that shots had been fired at the Union. Six minutes later, she received the official alert message from MSU to “Run, Hide, Fight.”
As a member of MSU’s yearbook staff, Berg says that she knows “everyone on every inch of this campus.”
She locked her windows, closed her blinds and sat in the dark with her friends listening to a police scanner for any possible information. Mostly she heard sirens.
“Group chats and story updates through Snapchat” is how Berg tracked what was happening on campus and with her friends.
Heavy shelves and suitcase barricade the door inside a Case Hall dorm room while students were under a shelter-in-place lockdown for four hours after a mass shooting on Michigan State University (MSU) campus in East Lansing, Michigan, on Feb. 13, 2023. Photo by Faith Cabalum.
On another side of campus, second-year digital storytelling student Faith Cabalum was studying in an open lounge area in Case Hall with her roommate. After receiving notification from the university about the shooting, she immediately saw people running out of the dining hall below.
“They closed the dining hall doors and started to lockdown and that’s when we realized we shouldn’t be sitting in the open area,” Cabalum said. “We texted anyone we knew that lived in Case [Hall] to try to get to a room. One of my roommate’s friends let us in her dorm room, which we are so grateful for. We pushed the dressers, desks, and anything heavy in front of the door and turned off all the lights. We laid on the floor and tried to stay calm and be quiet.”
In the quiet, she could hear people crying, desks and furniture being moved, “and then it got quiet for hours. All you could hear [was] the helicopter above us,” Cabalum said.
They were too afraid to even flush the toilet in the darkness, for fear of making noise.
“We didn’t know where the shooter was, and the police scanner was inaccurate,” Cabalum said. “We were just told to run, hide and fight.”
After four hours of sheltering in place, the lockdown order was lifted at 12:27 a.m., and they could finally walk back to their own dorm room. By then, the campus seemed to be full of cars. “Parents were picking up their students and people were running home in fear,” Cabalum said. “I’ve never seen so many people so traumatized.”
MSU sent several campuswide alerts to students that night that shots had been fired on or near the East Lansing campus. One alert had the message, “Secure-in-Place immediately. Run, Hide, Fight. Run means evacuate away from danger if you can do so safely, Hide means to secure-in-place, and Fight means protect yourself if no other option.”
“Run, Hide, Fight” is a common active shooter protocol or survival strategy recommended by the FBI, the State of Michigan and many universities, including MSU and University of Michigan.
Michigan State University (MSU) emergency alert messages sent to students after a mass shooting on campus killed three students and injured five students, East Lansing, Feb. 13, 2023. Photo by Campbell Berg.
MSU alerts sent later in the evening elaborated further, “Secure in place; turn cell phones to silent; remain quite.” (sic)
The “Run, Hide, Fight” protocol is explained in more detail on the MSU Police Department’s website, “How you respond to an active violence incident will be dictated by the specific circumstances of the encounter, bearing in mind there could be more than one offender involved in the same situation. If you find yourself involved in one of these deadly situations, try to remain calm and use these guidelines to help you plan a strategy for survival.”
Unfortunately, lockdowns, drills, and even mass school shootings are not new for many students.
Some students who survived the November 2021 mass shooting at Oxford High School, in which four students were killed and seven people were injured, are now students at MSU. Many students from surrounding schools that faced threats, lockdowns, and school shutdowns in the weeks following the Oxford High School mass shooting are also now students at MSU. Many have been learning lockdown drills throughout their K-12 education.
Michigan State University student Emma Riddle tweets about her experience being in two school shootings, at Oxford High School and at MSU.
“The most haunting picture of last night was watching the cameras pan through the crowds and seeing a young person wearing an ‘Oxford Strong’ sweatshirt,” U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin whose constituency stretches from East Lansing to Oxford, said at a media briefing Tuesday morning. “The sweatshirts that were handed out after those kids lived through a school shooting 15 months ago. And we have children in Michigan who are put into their second school shooting in under a year and a half. If this is not a wakeup call to do something, I don’t know what is.”
Junior Delaney Rogers attended Lake Orion High School in the city just south of Oxford. The two neighboring communities have always been close, but the shooting “resurfaced that urgency and fear of not knowing where loved ones are,” Rogers said. Her class that usually ends at 8:00 p.m. that night happened to be dismissed 50 minutes early, so she had already arrived at a friend’s house before the shooting began. “It’s nauseating that there are students at MSU, freshmen, who are Oxford graduates and have to experience this once again.”
READ MORE: 3 students dead after Michigan State University shooting
Berg’s high school in Virginia and four neighboring high schools had been put on high alert during her junior year because of threats, but she had never been in a full lockdown like this.
“I felt so safe here and now it just went away in a snap,” Berg said. “It’s so hard to settle in and actually realize it was my school.”
Cabalum had practiced lockdown drills throughout her K-12 education in Rochester Hills, a suburb of Detroit. However, the real thing feels different. “I feel anxious, frustrated, scared and confused. I think a lot of the MSU community is feeling a mixture of emotions.”
In the days following the shooting, the circle of grief and trauma radiated out far beyond the current 50,000 registered students at MSU. MSU held a vigil Wednesday evening, attended by the governor.
As the most populous university in the state, and one of the largest in the U.S., most Michiganders know someone or have some connection to the school in East Lansing.
People comfort each other amongst bouquets of flowers during a vigil at The Rock on the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing, Michigan, U.S., February 15, 2023, to honor and remember the victims of the mass shooting on the MSU campus. Ryan Garza/USA TODAY NETWORK
Many across the world are reaching out to the MSU community, also holding candlelight vigils and prayer services across many denominations, sharing social media posts of solidarity, providing comfort and therapy dogs, fundraising for survivors’ medical care, helping students get home, offering “mom hugs,” and, in the case of one family, walking around campus to offer students doughnuts.
These expressions of grief, support and protest are not unusual in the aftermath of a mass shooting, but they’re not just happening on MSU’s campus or in the city of East Lansing, but across the state, in the hometowns of the students who were killed, and even on the campuses of rival universities.
MSU is a sprawling university campus of 5,200 acres. This week, it feels small as Spartans mourn the three students killed by the shooter – Arielle Anderson of Harper Woods, Alexandria Verner of Clawson, and Brian Fraser of Grosse Pointe – and five others who were injured.
Classes were canceled for the week but resume Monday as students begin to process what has become a common occurrence in America.
Two days after the shooting, hundreds of MSU students held a sit-in at the State Capitol in Lansing, sitting silently in rows like they have many times in their classrooms under lockdown. Several Democratic legislators sat with them. Then students took turns telling stories of what they experienced Monday night in hopes that legislators would hear them.
Mourners attend a candlelight vigil for Alexandria Verner at the Clawson High School football field in Clawson, Mich., Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. Verner was among the students killed after a gunman opened fire on the campus of Michigan State University Monday night. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
“MSU’s campus is a special place for so many, and it is now the site of another senseless act of gun violence,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, an alumnus of MSU said in a statement. “Parents across Michigan were on pins and needles calling their kids to check in on them and tell them they love them. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
“We should not, we cannot, accept living like this,” Whitmer said.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, the shooting at MSU is the 67th mass shooting this year, a sobering number on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and less than 15 months since the mass shooting at Oxford High School in Oxford Township, Michigan.
At Gov. Whitmer’s State of the State address last month, she called for “commonsense action to reduce gun violence in our communities” including universal background checks, safe firearm storage laws, and extreme risk protection orders.
These reforms are supported by a majority of Michigan voters according to recent statewide polling, but legislation proposed after the mass shooting at Oxford High School failed to move forward in the then Republican-majority legislature. Now that Michigan Democrats have a majority in the state legislature, these bills are beginning to move forward. Michigan Senators introduced eleven bills Thursday.
But restricting guns will not be easy, as Michigan has both gun rights and self-defense enshrined in the state Constitution. Also, Republican lawmakers will resist, favoring legislation that only looks at what they argue are underlying issues that contribute to violence, such as mental health support and school safety programs.
WATCH: Michigan Democrats push for more gun control laws after MSU mass shooting
“I am willing to work with anyone who wants to find solutions that will better protect our children,” Senate Republican Leader Aric Nesbitt said in a statement. “But we have to be honest with one another — proposing bills that do not address the root causes of this epidemic just to do something, is just as bad as doing nothing.”
In an interview on the PBS NewsHour, State Attorney General Dana Nessel – who is also an MSU parent – told co-anchor Amna Nawaz she disagrees with Nesbitt. “It’s a matter of making guns less accessible and available to people,” she said.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel talks with Michigan State University students during a protest in front of the State Capitol against guns, following a mass shooting of eight MSU students on Monday at campus, in Lansing, Michigan U.S. February 15, 2023. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Rep. Slotkin had no patience for those who are not willing to discuss common sense gun safety reform. “You either care about protecting kids or you don’t. You either care about having an open, honest conversation about what is going on in our society or you don’t,” Slotkin said at a media briefing. “So please don’t tell me you care about the safety of children if you’re not willing to have a conversation about keeping them safe in a place that should be a sanctuary.”
For students, the answers are in their own hands.
“You don’t think it will happen to you until it does,” Cabalum said. “Hug the people around you and appreciate every day you have.”
Despite extensive and routine drills throughout school, “None of us could have prepared for this,” Rogers said. “We all need to be gentle with ourselves and process in a way that feels best. Surround yourself with loved ones, reach out to others and take care of your own self.”
READ MORE: After Oxford High shooting, Michigan teachers ask: How do we keep going?
Hoss is still focused on trying to take care of others in her community. “My school club and the College of Nursing at MSU are trying to fundraise for the victims’ families to help cover the medical expenses as well as reach out and thank the Sparrow Healthcare workers.”
“This can happen at any time, no matter where you are, who you are,” Berg said. “It sucks that this is our reality. All we can do is vote for change and fight for the right causes.”
MSU journalism professor Geri Alumit Zeldes is preparing to help students face the challenges ahead after classes resume next week. “Our challenges as educators revolve around our students, giving grace while meeting course objectives amidst the suffering,” Zeldes said.
In addition to being a professor, Zeldes is also an MSU parent, and had this message on Valentine’s Day for students and their families, “On a day about love, I am sending it to the families and friends of those we lost last night and who are fighting for their lives at Sparrow Hospital. I see your faces and read your stories in the news, and I imagine your dreams. I am so sorry.”
Flowers left at the Michigan State University (MSU) “Sparty” statue the day after a mass shooting on campus killed three students and injured five students, East Lansing, Michigan, Feb. 14, 2023. Photo by Campbell Berg.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a Communities Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour out of Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan.
Courtney Norris is the deputy senior producer of national affairs for the NewsHour. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @courtneyknorris
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