Paige Robinson pulled up to an empty parking lot for her shift at Walker Upper Elementary School on Monday morning. Confused, the substitute teacher checked her phone.
She saw a slew of messages in her school’s group chat about a shooting at the University of Virginia. She quickly checked the Charlottesville City Schools website.
There, she learned that schools were closed because of a mass shooting on the UVA campus the night before — and that police were at that moment conducting a citywide manhunt for the suspect.
“It’s scary to think that a shooter was loose in my city for so long and I had no idea,” said Robinson.
What was even more startling, she said, was that the reason she didn’t know was that she is not affiliated with UVA.
The shooting occurred around 10:30 p.m. Sunday on a charter bus. A group of UVA students had just returned to Culbreth Road on campus from a field trip to see a play in Washington D.C. Three students died, two were injured and the suspect fled.
Because the shooting happened on campus, UVA Police responded. Within minutes, UVA activated its emergency alert system to notify students, faculty and staff, and ordered them to shelter in place. And they did.
Throughout the night, police combed the city for suspected shooter Christopher Darnell Jones, Jr., whom they considered “armed and dangerous.” Hundreds of UVA students remained in dorm rooms, libraries, labs and other common areas, receiving messages to stay put and look out for Jones.
“So, between 10:30 and the time I woke up around 7 a.m., there were at least four dozen messages,” said Katrina Spencer, the librarian for African American and African studies at UVA. “They were continually saying for people to shelter in place. And I think that actually it was important for them to continue sending out those messages. Because, if an hour, an hour and a half went by without receiving them, people might have thought that it was safe to leave.”
Meanwhile, there were community members living off campus, some blocks from Culbreth Road, unaware anything had happened.
Four of six nearby Venable Elementary School parents Charlottesville Tomorrow spoke with said their first notification that a manhunt was underway came from their children’s schools just before 7 a.m. Monday morning, when classes were canceled.
As news spread through the greater Charlottesville community that school was canceled and the UVA campus locked down, many wondered if they, too, should be staying home.
Local police offered no guidance to Charlottesville residents until 8:30 a.m., when a Charlottesville Police Department (CPD) captain took a call from a reporter.
Acting Capt. Tony Newberry told Charlottesville Tomorrow that people should “be aware that the police are still out there looking. If you don’t have to, don’t be out as much as you can, especially for [the general area around the university]. Stay where you are and stay vigilant.”
The warning ended at 10:30 a.m. when police determined Jones was no longer in the Charlottesville area. A half hour later, he was captured in Henrico County, outside Richmond.
After the manhunt ended, Robinson said she felt shocked that she was unaware of a situation that university police deemed dangerous enough to order that students shelter in place for 12 hours.
“We’re the same community,” she said.
So, why weren’t she and other Charlottesville residents given the same warnings as those connected to UVA?
CPD’s Newberry said that because this incident happened on UVA property, Charlottesville police were not in charge of the investigation or the search. They helped, but department leaders did not have the same information that UVA did.
There needs to be better communication between UVA and the city of Charlottesville.—Substitute teacher Paige Robinson
“This is a situation where we were assisting [UVA Police], so we had to wait on information,” Newberry said.
With more timely information, the department has a couple options for notifying the community, Newberry said. One is simply to issue news releases. These short notices are posted to the city’s website, social media accounts and go out as emails to anyone who has signed up to receive them. They are often amplified by local media.
In more dire situations, the department can send reverse 911 text messages. (Sign up to receive reverse 911 messages here.)
“For us, and for your average citizen, one of the best things that we can do is just put out timely releases,” Newberry said. “That’s a lot easier for us, though, when we are the primary agency or we’re the ones in control of that. One of the last things we want to do as an assisting agency is to be putting out releases that would somehow undermine or take away from the primary investigating agency.
“We need to let our folks know,” he said, “but we also don’t want to mess up the search.”
Newberry was quick to add that the situation Sunday night was chaotic. UVA Police were coordinating with six local, state and federal agencies in the manhunt. The primary concern was finding the suspect.
UVA’s other concern was keeping the university community safe, a spokesperson said.
UVA agencies do that though a well-established system of notifying students and staff in emergencies. This shooting triggered the university’s active shooter response, which includes a “shelter in place” order.
One of the first messages UVA sent at 10:42 p.m. Sunday was, “UVA alert: ACTIVE ATTACKER firearm reported in area of Culbreth Road. RUN HIDE FIGHT.”
At 6:26 a.m. Monday, another message read: “UVA Alert: AT THIS TIME LAW ENFORCEMENT ARE DOING A COMPLETE SEARCH ON AND AROUND UVA GROUNDS. REMAIN SHELTERED IN PLACE.”
“Our first priority is our students,” university spokesperson Brian Coy told Charlottesville Tomorrow in a brief exchange Monday afternoon following a news conference. Other agencies, he said, are responsible for community members who aren’t connected to UVA.
Our first priority is our students.—UVA spokesperson Brian Coy
Coy left the conference before a Charlottesville Tomorrow reporter could ask more questions. He did not respond to two follow-up emails asking how the university shares critical information beyond UVA agencies or if it has any intention of changing its protocols for sharing information in the future.
The university does allow anyone to sign up for its emergency text alerts. At 1:07 a.m. Monday, UVA Emergency Management tweeted instructions for community members to register. (Text “UVA” to 226787.)
Robinson, the substitute teacher, is already signed up. She registered after getting to the empty parking lot at Walker Upper Elementary. But she still wants better information the next time there’s an emergency at UVA, she said.
“There needs to be better communication between UVA and the city of Charlottesville.”
Angilee Shah contributed to this report.