Two students were shot and wounded, one seriously, at Delaware State University early Friday, prompting administrators mindful of the massacre at Virginia Tech to order a swift shutdown of the campus while police searched for the gunman.
Police identified two students as “persons of interest,” questioning both of them, while students remained locked in their dorms and officers lowered gates to keep anyone from coming onto the campus of the 3,690-student historically black university.
“The biggest lesson learned from that whole situation at Virginia Tech is don’t wait. Once you have an incident, start notifying the community,” said university spokesman Carlos Holmes.
The shooting, reported to police at 12:54 a.m., happened as a group of students were returning from an on-campus cafe. A 17-year-old male student was in stable condition; a female student, also 17, was shot in the abdomen and in serious condition.
The two students were shot on the Campus Mall, between the Memorial Hall gymnasium and Richard S. Grossley Hall, an administrative building. Investigators believed the shootings may have been preceded by an argument at the cafe, and Holmes said it did not appear to be random.
The male student, who was wounded in the ankle, refused to answer questions by police about the shootings, raising the likelihood that he knew his attacker, according to a federal law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.
Campus officials acted much more swiftly than officials at Virginia Tech did five months ago, when administrators delayed notifying students nearly two hours after gunman Seung-Hui Cho killed his first two victims. By then, he had already started shooting 30 other people in a classroom building across campus.
A report by a panel appointed by Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine concluded that lives could have been saved if alerts had been sent out earlier and classes canceled after Cho killed his first two victims.
At Delaware State, officials didn’t wait. Within about 20 minutes of the shooting being reported to police, even as the victims were being taken to hospitals, campus police and residence hall advisers were telling students to stay in their dorm rooms, although not all were told there had been a shooting.
By 2:11 a.m., campus police Chief James Overton was meeting with another university official to discuss the school’s response. Notices were posted in dormitories and the school Web site by about 2:40 a.m., and the decision to cancel classes was made shortly after 5 a.m., well before the school day started.
The shootings happened under different circumstances. The Virginia Tech rampage began at 7 a.m. as students thronged the campus and headed to morning classes; at Delaware State, it happened in the middle of the night, when many students were in their dorm rooms.
The panel that investigated the response to the Virginia Tech shootings noted that it would have been tough to shut down the 2,600-acre Tech campus; Delaware State is only about 400 acres. But it appears Delaware State responded to the crisis well, said Gerald Massengill, who led the group.
“I think just like post-9/11, there’s a post-April 16 mentality,” he said.
Alex Bishoff, 20, a freshman from Washington, D.C., said he heard five gunshots and looked out his dormitory window to see people scattering. He said he immediately thought of the Virginia Tech shootings last April.
Students were warned within about 15 minutes, Bishoff said. “I think they handled it pretty well,” he said.
Students react to situation
Timmara Gooden, 20, of Philadelphia, said in a phone interview from her dorm room that she and her suite mates kept each other calm and were making sure that their parents understand that they’re OK.
Students weren’t even going into their dorm hallways. “We don’t want to walk out there, because we don’t know what’s going on,” Gooden said.
Students were still being advised Friday afternoon to remain in their dorms, but were being escorted to the cafeteria for meals. Officials also made arrangements for students who wanted to leave campus for the weekend, during which hordes of race fans and recreational vehicles converge on the town for NASCAR action across the street at Dover Downs Speedway.
University president Allen Sessoms emphasized the shooting was not random.
“This is an internal problem,” said Sessoms. “There are no externalities ... this is just kids who did very, very stupid things.”
At the start of the semester, the campus held a memorial service for three students and an incoming student who were shot execution-style Aug. 4 as they hung out at an elementary school in their hometown of Newark, N.J. Natasha Aeriel, 19; her brother, Terrance Aeriel, 18, and Dashon Harvey, 20, were students. Iofemi Hightower, 20, had planned to attend Delaware State this fall. Natasha Aeriel, the only survivor, helped police identify six suspects who have been arrested.
Holmes said there was no indication that Friday’s shooting was related in any way to the Newark, N.J., killings. Both of the victims in Friday’s shootings were from the Washington, D.C., area, officials said.