Monmouth University issued a shelter in place advisory following a report of a possible armed individual on campus late on Wednesday, March 22. After nearly four hours of lockdown and investigation by both campus and local law enforcement, it was revealed that the suspected firearm was actually a curling iron.
The University announced the presence of a potentially armed subject through the emergency notification system at 9:51 p.m. According to a later email from Patrick Leahy, Ed.D., President of Monmouth University, the initial report was made to the Monmouth University Police Department (MUPD) at 9:15 p.m., 36 minutes prior to the alert.
During this time, police interviewed the person who called in the report and conducted a threat assessment to gauge its legitimacy. According to Leahy, it was eventually determined that there was enough of a threat to deem a possible armed suspect on campus. After this conclusion was reached, the shelter in place alert was sent out to the campus community.
Along with MUPD, other law enforcement agencies including the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Office, Long Branch, Ocean Township, and West Long Branch police departments were called in to assist in the investigation.
Rumors of gunshots began to circulate online at about 10:30 p.m. after multiple students reported hearing loud noises near residential buildings. Leahy’s email debriefing the incident noted that “upon investigation, additional reports of shots fired were unfounded,” and he later commented that “the cause was determined to be fireworks from Long Branch.” However, no official statement from the University was made at the time of the rumored gunshots.
“I really wish that the University gave more timely updates about the situation,” said Gabrielle Sangataldo, a junior communications student. “It was genuinely terrifying to be alone in my room and hear what I thought were gunshots and then not hear any updates from the University.”
“I think the University could have done a better job with effectively communicating to the students what was happening during their investigation as well as confirming or denying any of the false information that was circulating across campus and on social media,” agreed Ashley Haytas, a senior health studies student.
Students did not receive another message from the University until 11:49 p.m., nearly two hours after the initial shelter in place advisory. The update, which was also sent through the emergency notification system, cautioned students to continue to shelter in place and noted that additional updates would be provided as they became available.
Another emergency notification system alert was sent at 1:05 a.m. on Thursday, March 23 to address the widespread speculation about gunshots heard on campus, confirming that there was “no evidence of shots fired” and informing students that they should remain sheltered in place as the police investigation continued.
Students were given an “all clear” at 1:41 a.m., nearly four hours after the initial shelter in place advisory was issued. The message, again sent through the University’s emergency notification system, read: “The shelter in place on campus has been lifted, the campus is safe, an elevated police presence remains. Additional information will be sent via email.”
“I was in shock and scared because there was very limited information and I was trying to process what to do. I was in Shadows doing homework with only one other person and we were quickly trying to decide where to go to seek shelter. We decided to go to the bathroom in Shadows and lock the door with the lights off as we felt that was the safest place, and we were there from 9:50 p.m. to approximately 1:00 a.m.,” described Haytas.
“I was scared at the time because I didn’t know what was going to happen. When I finally heard the voice of the police officer who cleared my friend and I out of the building, I immediately felt relieved knowing that I was in good hands,” described Mia Lewis, a senior health studies student who was sheltered in place with Haytas. “He made sure we were safe by not only getting us out of the bathroom we were hiding in, but also escorting my friends and I to our cars to ensure that we got home safely. This experience made me realize how lucky I am that Monmouth has such a caring and thoughtful police force.”
“The University had a large response of police enforcement that showed they did not take the possibility of an armed subject lightly,” added Haytas.
In an email addressed to members of the Monmouth University community, Leahy provided further details about the series of events that took place between the initial shelter in place and the eventual resolution of the incident: “Detectives were able to utilize video footage and other technology based on the description provided and identified a person of interest, a currently enrolled student,” he explained. “Based on interviews with that person, law enforcement personnel were able to determine that the person was in possession of a curling iron that was mistaken for a weapon.”
“We had a report that someone observed someone else with what they believed might have been a firearm,” explained Nagy. “They called that in, and I am extraordinarily grateful that that student said something. I always want to encourage students to do that. Even if it turns out to be a false alarm, that’s okay. I would rather have a false alarm and take the position and actions that we did rather than brush it off as impossible, because if it was real and we didn’t take the action that we did, I think people would be angrier than they are today.”
“The University had a large response of police enforcement that showed they did not take the possibility of an armed subject lightly,” said Haytas.
Acknowledging the impact of the prior night’s events, it was announced that University would have a delayed opening on Thursday, March 23, with classes starting at noon.
An email from Mary Anne Nagy, Vice President for Student Life and Leadership Engagement, informed students that although classes starting after 12 p.m. would be held at their regularly scheduled time, they could reach out to their professors if they did not feel prepared to go: “If you find attending class today to be of some challenge, you are encouraged to reach out to your faculty member individually to make appropriate arrangements for your absence from class today.”
“For everybody’s mental health and recovery, classes most definitely should have been canceled for the entire day. Though nothing happened, I found it sort of insensitive that it was only a delay and contributed to the overall normalization of mass shootings in our country,” expressed Sangataldo.
In order to further address the prior night’s events, Leahy announced that he would be hosting a Zoom call with other members of the University’s senior administrative team at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 23. The virtual meeting had about 1,000 attendees.
At the meeting, students, parents, and other members of the Monmouth University community voiced concerns about how the incident was handled, citing multiple accounts of gunshots, easy access to campus despite the heavy police presence, and a lack of communication to students who were not signed up for the emergency notification system. Others questioned the validity of the finding that the suspected firearm was actually a curling iron.
“Is it a coverup? Is it a conspiracy? How can it be when you have not just this institution involved, but so many other departments. There’s no way that can be,” said Nagy, addressing speculation that there was an active shooter on campus and information about the incident was being withheld by the University.
“Are there things to be learned? Yes, there were definitely challenges that were there,” said Nagy, pointing to potential gaps in University systems, students who didn’t receive emergency notification system alerts, and the influx of parents who came to campus during the investigation. “Everything was happening lightning fast. Now, a few days removed, we can think about it, and every day we’ll probably think of something different.”
“As is always the case with these types of investigations, an in-depth review and analysis of the overall response is underway and will contribute to ongoing safety enhancements for our campus community,” concluded Leahy.