After false bomb threat at Occidental, 12 buildings searched and secured

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The Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center at Occidental College in Los Angeles. On Thursday, a college employee found a bomb threat note on the floor of a bathroom in the building.
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A college employee discovered a bomb threat note on the floor of a bathroom in the Arthur G. Coons (AGC) Administrative Center at Occidental around 9:30 a.m. Thursday morning, Dec. 6. The note specifically threatened 11 buildings — Fowler and Johnson Halls, the Mary Norton Clapp Academic Commons, Hameetman Science Center, the Intercultural Community Center, the AGC, the Facilities and Athletics offices, Emmons Wellness Center, the Admissions building and Norris Chemistry — and also threatened the department of Student Affairs.

Director of Communications Jim Tranquada sent a campus-wide email at 11:53 a.m. informing the college community of the threat and stating that all buildings named in the note, as well as Berkus Hall — the residence hall and academic building that also houses the office of Student Affairs — were being evacuated. The official campus alert system was not used, with college administrators opting to use campus-wide emails instead. Tranquada said this was because the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)’s initial appraisal of the situation determined that there was not an immediate threat.

“If LAPD had, in their initial evaluation of the situation, said, ‘Look you gotta get people out of there,’ then we would have immediately activated Oxy Alert and everyone would have gotten emails and texts to let them know what was going on,” Tranquada said.

Tranquada sent a second campus-wide email 16 minutes after his first, stating that LAPD, along with Campus Safety officers, had searched all the threatened buildings and offices and found no credible threat. He said he was preparing an official campus alert when he got this ‘all clear.’ Tranquada sent a third and final email at 2:37 p.m. giving more information on the threat and subsequent search.

Tranquada said that as soon as the note was discovered, the college called LAPD.

“A: making a bomb threat is a crime, so we will always call the LAPD in the case of a bomb threat to report a crime, but B: we need their expertise to help us assess the nature of the threat,” Tranquada said.

LAPD officers, not bomb squad specialists, arrived at around 10:00 a.m., according to Tranquada, and began searching for any suspicious items that could have disguised a bomb. No suspicious items were found at any point in the search. Tranquada said that the LAPD did not send bomb specialists because the college had not found any evidence of a bomb other than the note.

“Naturally, people [college employees] had already started discreetly looking around to see if there was anything, and we had no reports of anything and we hadn’t identified anything independently,” Tranquada said.

A picture of the note was sent to bomb specialists at the LAPD to make use of their expertise, Tranquada said.

Director of Disability Services & Student Support Luci Masredjian, who works in the Berkus Student Affairs offices, first noticed that something was happening when other college employees started being pulled out of meetings.

“Then LAPD came in and asked to look around,” Masredjian said. “There was a lot of confusion, but they were just really swift, and we know our Campus Safety officers really well and they were with them, so they just came in and swept our offices. They were really calm, so we felt pretty calm about it.”

At that point, Masredjian said she and her colleagues were not aware of the bomb threat but were able to infer what was happening. Ten minutes later, they received Tranquada’s first email, and the group of employees evacuated, driving to the Marketplace (MP) to have lunch and process the events together.

“We hadn’t even parked outside the MP before we got the all clear,” Masredjian said.

Emma Pottenger (sophomore) and Evie Pope (sophomore) were in their room in Berkus Hall when they got word of the threat. Neither saw the email; Pope got messages from friends that do not live in Berkus asking if she had seen the email and evacuated before Pope informed Pottenger. They left the building five or ten minutes after the first email was sent, and then spent another five or ten minutes in the heavy rain outside Berkus before receiving the ‘all clear’ email.

“We just tried to get our stuff and go out,” Pottenger said. “We were in our pajamas so we tried to put on clothes. On our way out, we saw a couple of other people who were leaving, and we were sort of talking to them. One of them decided to go back. His dad wanted him to come home.”

Pottenger and Pope said that although they read the third email and understood the technical reasons why the college did not use the official alert system, they wished that the official text-based system had been used.

“It felt very informal,” Pottenger said. “I was watching TV and kind of half asleep, so if Evie wasn’t here I definitely wouldn’t have evacuated.”

As the college returned to normal activities, LAPD and Campus Safety investigated the source of the threat. Tranquada said he did not know whether LAPD had any leads on a suspect and added that he could not disclose much information on the investigation without affecting it. He said LAPD will continue to investigate, as Campus Safety does not have the authority or ability to conduct a criminal investigation.

Director of Campus Safety Rick Tanksley noted the cooperation between LAPD and Campus Safety and thanked LAPD for their efforts.

“There wouldn’t be anything I would add beyond what’s provided in the update given that it is an on-going criminal investigation,” Tanksley said via email. “What I would add, however, is a compliment [to] the LAPD on their quick response to campus and for their assistance to Campus Safety in conducting a systematic search of the buildings in question. However, in order to be effective during the search, they relied upon the knowledge and experience of Campus Safety, who knows this campus like the back of their hand.”

Tranquada said that in his 18 years working at Oxy, there has never been another bomb threat. However, on Wednesday at Cal State University Northridge (CSUN), a swastika and graffiti threats of a school shooting were discovered on a bathroom stall on campus. Masredjian said that this almost had a desensitizing effect on her and her colleagues’ reaction to the threat at Occidental.

“We were just this morning talking about the CSUN threats, so I think it was just on our minds,” Masredjian said. “We were already kind of subconsciously prepared.”