The biggest worries on the mind of Palm Beach Atlantic University freshman Danielle Newport lately relate to class work – finishing assignments and passing exams. That holds true for hundreds of students every single day. But what the film major, and many others, are not concerned about on a daily basis is the idea of an active shooter situation happening within this urban campus.
“I think that we should be aware as students,” Newport said. “I would want to know…parents might want to know… that this is a possibility, someone could come on campus with a gun.”
Located in the heart of downtown West Palm Beach, anyone carrying a dangerous weapon can walk on PBA grounds at any given time. That’s exactly what happened in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, according to a police report obtained by The Beacon Today. West Palm Beach police responded to a report of “an armed individual on the campus” as detailed by Officer Ivy Erhardt in her probable cause affidavit.
The police report states PBA security officer Joseph Lozano heard a loud bang in a parking lot outside his office just before his shift ended. When Lozano went outside to investigate the situation, he told police Brandon Esparza stood next to a truck urinating on the ground. As Lozano questioned Esparza as to his purpose and motive for being on PBA property, the security officer told police he recognized the outline of a handgun in Esparza’s right pocket.
PBA dispatch called West Palm Beach police after Lozano placed Esparza in handcuffs. Another school security officer, Brandon Foster, told police he removed the gun from Esparza’s pocket, checked the gun and saw that it was unloaded. According to the police report, the handgun removed from Esparza was reported stolen from Lantana police in 2006.
West Palm Beach police charged Esparza with a felony count of trespassing a school property with a firearm. At the time of the incident, students were mostly asleep in their dorm rooms but that still does not defeat the fact that potential threats involving dangerous weapons could easily happen on campus.
“It is a little scary sometimes I think because someone could just come up with a gun and… start shooting. You could be the next thing in the news and I don’t really want that to happen,” Newport said.
Douglas Reece, Director of Campus Safety and Security at Palm Beach Atlantic University, wants to assure students that his office goes through the proper procedures to make sure that everyone at school is safe.
“Every day is a concern to make sure that the campus is safe,” Reece said.
PBA has an alert system called Alertus that allows campus security to notify students immediately if a dangerous situation is developing on school property.
“Whether it’s an active shooter… or we had a weather event or a fire or anything that’s going to put us in a situation where people… students, staff, faculty, could be in danger,” Reece said.
As a part of the alert system, students would be given instructions on what to do depending on the danger. For an active shooter situation, students would be told to either leave the area if it’s safe, or to stay in a classroom equipped with a mechanism that locks the door from the inside.
For Associate Vice President for University Relations and Marketing Becky Peeling, practicing safety procedures is very important. According to Peeling and Reece, there is a training program that students, staff and faculty members can do. The program goes through the processes of staying safe in different scenarios. If there is a group of individuals on campus who would like to receive training for a specific scenario or if they just want more information, they can call or go by the safety and security office.
“I encouraged all of my staff to come because where we’re located, and we work late hours, we really want to know [the safety procedures],” Peeling said.
But keeping PBA’s campus safe is not only security’s responsibility because, according to Reece, everyone plays an important role.
“Knowing our environment, understanding who belongs, who doesn’t belong, if we see something, say something,” said Reece.
If campus security feels like there is a serious situation on campus, like a potential gun threat, they would call West Palm Beach police, and further action would be taken by them.
William DeVito, a lieutenant for the West Palm Beach Police Department, is the officer in charge of doing presentations on active shooting scenarios. He says the Nov. 5 incident was not the first time his department received a call about a potential threat developing at PBA.
In one case, students were playing tag with Nerf guns that were painted to look like rifles. Each call is as serious as the next and the police department has to go through the same procedures to determine if there is a real crime at hand, if a gun is even involved, and if the gun is real or not.
“But you always have to treat it as it's real... because unfortunately...it would be nice to say that we can identify every single thing right when it happens, but we have a split second to make a decision whether this guy is pointing a real gun or that's a fake gun,” DeVito said.
According to Reece, there is now a standard of police work when it comes to the way that they react to an active shooter drill after the Columbine massacre in 1999. Before, police were taught to contain the situation and call SWAT. SWAT would then come in, secure weapons, go through different tactics and then take care of the situation.
“When that mindset changed, if we get a report of an active shooter or an active killer...when we get that initial call, everyone will start responding to try and neutralize the threat,” DeVito said.
Once that happens, DeVito says they immediate try to get to that active shooter and that includes law enforcement bypassing people who are hurt.
“So, when we're doing that, our main thing is to stop the threat so that we can stop the loss of life and as long as [the shooter is] still an active threat, we will pursue [the shooter] until we neutralize the subject."
According to DeVito, anytime where a gun is in play there is a higher threat level, especially on a campus, in a park or in a community where there's such a degree that a loss of life can take place. Because of the way that PBA campus is set up, it is not always easy to determine if there is a threat or not because what some may consider to be campus property is not considered property to others.
"There's a lot of legalities because it's not illegal in the state of Florida if you have a concealed weapon permit, to walk down a sidewalk. However, in the state of Florida it is illegal to have a gun on a college campus," DeVito said.
For Newport, the fact that PBA is a Christian based university may be concerning when thinking about being in an acting shooter situation because Christian groups have been targeted in recent events. Almost every single week day, hundreds of students gather in the DeSantis Family Chapel at 11 am. With many students gathered in one area, an easy target could be made.
According to Reece, security is in chapel every day, starting from 10:40 am. Security staff is always going to try to oversee and monitor what is going on. There are also extensive video cameras on campus to have the ability to monitor the campus at all times.
"You know, with the state of the world today and the incidents that are happening... you look at Las Vegas, you look at the Texas shooting that just happened at the church... I don’t think anything is off base to be worried, but I don’t that it is an unbelievable threat to say that they would be a target because you're a Christian university or anything like that,” DeVito said. “Obviously, it is in the back of everyone's mind... but I don’t think I've ever heard a threat of doing anything like that to Palm Beach Atlantic."