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After threat, Holyoke Community College student charged, college reviews emergency response

— Student Danielle Westcott, 23, was sitting in the Holyoke Community College radio station Tuesday afternoon when she heard a crowd in the hallway and someone screaming “everyone has to get out.” She wasted no time.

Officials called a campus-wide evacuation after receiving word from police that someone had threatened to do harm to a relative and members of the college community.

The announcement resulted in a tide of 3,000 students and staff hurrying toward parking lots and bus stops, many of them trading guesses about what was going on. Drivers report being stuck in a traffic jam, some for close to 1½ hours. Others said they waited for the bus for close to an hour.

“They need a better plan to get us out,” said Westcott, a Springfield resident. “It took me 45 minutes to get off campus. If there was an actual threat, we would have all been dead.”

She and other students on campus Wednesday said that while they understood it was a difficult situation, the evacuation went poorly. Some said a lack of communication led to chaos and misinformation. Some thought the campus was in lockdown mode. Others panicked after hearing rumors of a shooter on campus.

Jesse Miranda, 23, of Chicopee said the lack of information, and conflicting information, created chaos.

“There was not a lot of information about what was going on,” Miranda said. “There seemed to be a lot of confusion and miscommunication between the authorities and the students. People were saying someone got shot, they found a dead body, or it was a bomb threat.”

Erica Broman, vice president for institutional development at the college, said officials see this as a “teachable moment.”

“We’re grateful that no one was put in harm’s way and we’re taking this opportunity to look at our emergency management protocols and see if any adjustments need to be made,” she said.

Meanwhile, a 23-year-old student was arraigned in Holyoke District Court Wednesday on charges he made the threat. Springfield resident Cameron Faniel was arraigned Wednesday on a charge of making a bomb or hijack threat with serious public alarm. He was ordered held without bail. A judge set a dangerousness hearing for March 5, according to a spokesperson from the Hampden County District Attorney’s office.

Emergency response

Broman said Holyoke Police notified college officials of the threat just before noon. Officials immediately contacted the State Police, whose officers were on campus within 5 or 10 minutes. “They took control of the investigation and we took a brief period of time to see if it was a credible threat,” she said.

Nearly an hour after first hearing of the threat, officials decided to close campus. They sent out emails, texts and automated messages to student and staff members’ phones instructing them to leave campus immediately.

Because State Police were stationed at the two open entrances, Broman said they were confident the suspect who made the threat was not on campus. “If the individual was on campus, we would have locked down,” she said. Lockdown is an emergency protocol for a situation when there is an intruder in a building. It requires everyone to lock themselves in rooms and wait for word that the building is safe.

Westcott and others said students in the Bartley Center were briefly told by staff that the building was on lockdown.

Franky Cuevas, 18, of Springfield, said he was impressed by how the school’s automated emergency alert system notified students while he was sitting in the cafeteria Tuesday.

“I saw everyone getting the calls,” he said. “Everyone got the news fast, so that was good.”

Broman said school authorities couldn’t give out details because it was “a State Police matter,” and involved a criminal investigation.

“It was frustrating for students and staff, I completely understand that, but we were limited,” she said.

Westcott said it was disconcerting that there were no police officers in or near the buildings to assist with the evacuation, as they were only stationed at the entrances.

Broman said that complaint will “certainly be talked about” at the emergency management meeting. “I’ve talked to students who expressed concern that perhaps that’s something we could have done a better job with,” she said.

Only a few minutes after students and staff were notified to evacuate, the college learned that police had custody of the suspect in Springfield, but it was too late to stop the flow of traffic off campus.

Broman noted that the college has never had to evacuate before, and officials now will assess how it all went and what could have done differently.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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