By Annie Arnone
Teila Coulson put on her jacket, left her dorm room and headed to class. Autumn was just beginning and midterms were fast approaching at the University of Ottawa. As she left her floor, Coulson was pulled aside by a group of her dorm mates, huddled around in the common room looking confused.
“Where do you think you’re going?” one girl asked.
Coulson soon realized that Oct. 22, 2014 was not going to be a normal school day.
On Parliament Hill, just one-and-a-half kilometres from uOttawa campus, a gunman entered the Canadian National War Memorial and killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, a Canadian soldier on duty as a Ceremonial Guard, causing a citywide lockdown that the RCMP later declared a terrorist attack.
Phones buzzed as uOttawa security messages updated Coulson and her dorm mates with information. She couldn’t stop thinking about how her friends in other buildings were doing as she waited for any sign that it would be ending soon.
She was frantically trying to remember what to do in case of a lockdown, but couldn’t. The uOttawa administration had never given any indication of the procedure to follow during an active shooting situation.
School lockdowns work to confine students in the event of a threat on campus. The emergency protocol is also done to restrict the suspect within the building, as well as limit what information is released to the public, to prevent mass panic and control outsiders. Many are familiar with the common approach taught in elementary schools and practised multiple times a year: lock all entrances, turn off the lights and hide—anything to give the shooter a false impression of an empty room.
But there are none of these drills in university. Canadian post-secondary institutions, including Ryerson, uOttawa and the University of Toronto, do not have strict lockdown policies within their safety manuals. What they do have, specifically at Ryerson, are “primary responses”: warn others, stay away from doors and move to the nearest room that you feel safe in.
In the Summer of 1999, an Oakham House staff member’s life was threatened. Pat Bennett, the woman in charge of bookings and catering, was held at gunpoint, taped to her chair and robbed in broad daylight by four men who were disguised as construction workers.
The school did not go into lockdown. The incident was only mentioned after the police arrived and the men, who were never identified, fled the scene.
More recently, on April 4, 2014, a shooting near Ryerson’s Pitman Hall left a 25-year-old man dead. Multiple shots were fired and the victim was found inside a black Chevrolet Malibu, riddled with bullets. The residence service desk responded by telling students to stay inside the building.
In her office on the 11th floor of Jorgenson Hall, Tanya Poppleton, manager of security and emergency services at Ryerson, turns to a pillar at the end of the hall and points at it, explaining the measures one should take in the event of a school shooter.
Canadian post-secondary institutions, including Ryerson, uOttawa and the University of Toronto, do not have strict lockdown policies within their safety manuals.
“Find yourself a secure location or hide behind something that is somewhat structurally deep,” she said. “A pillar like that has about three, four feet of concrete.”
Ryerson has a document containing all emergency procedures, including steps to take in the event of fires, bombs and shootings. They call it the Yellow Book. Last modified in October 2015, it’s Ryerson’s guide to potential emergencies. If an armed attacker were to come on to campus, the first step, according to the book, is to “look for your nearest, safest escape.” Students are obligated to familiarize themselves with its contents (Poppleton says that the list of procedures should be in every classroom). However, most seem to be unaware that it even exists.
Alyssa Manalaysay, third-year business management student and previous member of AIESEC Ryerson (a youth leadership group on campus), says she’s never heard of the Yellow Book.
Manalaysay came from a high school that prepared students for most possible scenarios. “I felt that since Ryerson was right downtown where many things happen, there would be really tight security in and around buildings and guidelines on what to do in case something bad was going on,” she said. But she thought wrong.
Manalaysay remembers working late hours in an empty Ted Rogers building with her student group. “You hear screaming outside,” she said. “It’s scary to be alone there at night. I feel like students shouldn’t have to be fearful.”
Due to the nature of Ryerson’s landscape with its scattered buildings and many exits, Poppleton said that to control and contain students would be too difficult of a task. “There is no one hardline prescription that I can give,” she said.
But other Canadian schools are trying out alternative methods.
Mark McKay begins his self-defense class by telling students to close their eyes. His lesson today is action versus reaction, he explains, as he walks around the room. He introduces an exercise called the clapping game.
In the darkness, students hear the sharp sound of his hands coming together. The goal is to match his actions down to the second.
They wait for the next clap, timing it in their heads, but they always miss—McKay is testing their response time.
When McKay, vice-president of C.O.B.R.A Self-Defense in Clearwater, Florida, heard about Ryerson’s lockdown policy (or lack thereof), he laughed.
“Hiding under a desk and turning the lights off just makes a room dark. It doesn’t make things go away,” he said. “It doesn’t mean someone won’t kick the door, look under the desks and start shooting.”
C.O.B.R.A. specializes in martial arts classes to simulate real-life encounters with criminals and prepare students for the possibility of an armed attack. He says it takes approximately five seconds to reload a handgun and half that time for the average human to run about two-and-a-half feet—a crucial point he mentions to his students during his classes.
“What student doesn’t have an arm full of books or a back pack? That is what I like to call improvised ballistic protection—you have so many things to use on hand that can stop a shooter,” he said.
Due to the nature of Ryerson’s landscape with its scattered buildings and many exits, Poppleton said that to control and contain students would be too difficult of a task.
This past June, the University of Waterloo adopted a policy similar to McKay’s methodology.
Unlike Ryerson, Waterloo’s emergency procedure states that there are three steps students should follow in the event of an armed person on campus: 1. Get out, 2. Hide, 3. Fight back. The idea being, that if one step is ineffective, or unrealistic based on circumstances, students should resort to the “fight back” policy.
Dave Gerencser, director of police services at Waterloo University, said that the implementation was adopted based on the University of Alberta’s policy, which follows a similar procedure prompting students to fight back as a last resort.
“We’ve taken this on and from my perspective it’s somewhat intuitive,” said Gerencser. “As a last resort, if students are in some way confronted or approached by the active shooter and the only way to get out is to fight, that’s obviously something they should be thinking about.”
Still, Poppleton believes Ryerson is better off with the policy they currently have due to the volume of people, classrooms and buildings.
“It’s every person’s responsibility to secure themselves,” Poppleton said. “The only time I’m aware of where an instructor would become an official, if there was a fire—we’re not expecting staff to run back to a floor, or a classroom.”
Sitting in her common room, Coulson followed the news closely, checking constantly for updates on the situation. While she was still hiding indoors, on the streets of uOttawa there were students walking around campus without any sense of urgency. There were no restrictions and no formal announcements. All she had been told was that there was a shooter nearby.
By 10 a.m, the shooter had been shot and killed by police. It wasn’t until an hour later that she received a message letting her know that the situation had cleared. Students went about their lives as if nothing had happened, but Coulson, still shook by the news, didn’t go outside all day.