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USF's show of force is sign of times after Virginia Tech

TAMPA — University of South Florida police are still trying to determine who called in the report of an armed man at the main library, or whether there even was an intruder.

But what's clear, USF officials said Tuesday, is that Monday's campus-wide alerts, blasting sirens and deployment of SWAT team members with assault rifles were necessary.

So even though USF police have now checked out unfounded reports of gunmen on campus three times since June, administrators say they don't think they have overreacted. To the contrary, they say if there are more threats, the university will respond just as robustly.

"We aren't going to do less," USF spokesman Michael Hoad said. "The idea of not informing people of a threat is past."

What USF needs to do now, Hoad said, is make sure its alerts are precise and useful enough that students and faculty know how to react.

So in the future, don't be surprised if USF stages drills so that people on campus can practice what to do, where to go and how to think in an emergency.

"Whether we could do it for all 40,000 people and disrupt classes, that's a different question," said Hoad, who is involved in planning how to keep the campus informed in an emergency. "But targeted drills, yes, because you want people to know what to do."

USF police have not determined whether the original call that touched off Monday afternoon's chaos was a hoax. But they have a recording of the call, and detectives are trying to determine whether it is connected to Vincent Thomas Perry McCoy, the USF junior and political science major who police said announced to a busload of passengers that he had a bomb.

McCoy, 23, remained in jail without bail Tuesday, charged with making a false report about planting a bomb on state-owned property.

His mother, Sonja McCoy, said he was trying to make a joke.

No matter, said USF police Lt. Meg Ross.

"If you put people in fear, you committed that crime," she said. "The people on the bus had no way of knowing whether he had a bomb or not."

Consider it a sign of the times.

Campus police, and not just at USF, increasingly roll out as if every report of someone with a gun is the real thing — a repeat of the rampage at Virginia Tech University that killed 33 people, including the shooter, in the deadliest attack by a single gunman in U.S. history.

"Sadly, April 16 (2007) changed the world for everybody, particularly in higher education," said Mark Owczarski, Virginia Tech's director of news and information.

Since the massacre, Virginia Tech has counseled "hundreds if not thousands of schools" on setting up the kind of multitiered emergency notification system USF has installed, he said.

"The reality is, regardless, you want to err on the side of caution, and you need to do that," Owczarski said. "You want students and faculty and staff to respond accordingly, to do what they need to do, because if there was, God forbid, an actual emergency, you want people to be safe."

It seems to work. A year ago, someone heard something like gunshots at Virginia Tech, called it in and triggered a campus-wide alarm. It turned out to be a nail gun at a construction site.

"Bottom line was, we were glad that (when) the community heard something they did not know, they reported it," Owczarski said.

In one of the three alerts that went out at USF Monday, that's exactly what happened, Hoad said. Students called in a report of a suspicious man with a knife and a puppy at Cooper Hall, and the university put out an alert. When officers arrived, students quickly pointed the man out to police, who concluded that there was no danger.

On Monday, as in USF's two previous scares, no gun was found.

In June, police responded to reports of a pistol-carrying man in the campus' Greek Village area but found no one.

In July, a man told a crisis center operator he was carrying a gun on campus and wasn't afraid to use it. But while he was suicidal, he was neither armed nor on campus. He was detained under the state's Baker Act.

On Tuesday, students swapped stories about where they were when the reports of bombs and a gunman hit their cell phones via USF's text messages. They talked of the sirens and locked buildings and police carrying assault rifles.

"I'm feeling a little vulnerable," said 23-year-old Catherine Shipman. "It's not every day you see police with guns and bulletproof vests yelling at you."

Most students agreed that the USF response, which urged students to stay indoors for nearly three hours Monday afternoon, was appropriate.

"I don't think there's anything else you can do," 19-year-old Vanessa Rosa said.

But others said that, yes, it would have helped to have better direction on Monday.

"I was here at the library around 1:30 on the third floor," said Andres Abril, 32. "The cops just came in and just told us to get out."

Outside, with people milling around, "I heard an announcement that said, 'Stay where you are.' But we were just told to get out," Abril said. "The message should have been clearer: Should we wait outside or find another place?"

Times staff writer Emily Nipps and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

USF students wait outside the main library after it was emptied Monday because authorities believed a gunman was inside. No gunman was found, but students said police did the right thing.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

USF students wait outside the main library after it was emptied Monday because authorities believed a gunman was inside. No gunman was found, but students said police did the right thing.

USF's show of force is sign of times after Virginia Tech 10/06/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2009 1:34am]
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