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Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Crime log: Subject barred after shoplifting at bookstore
By Max Porter, Contributing News Editor • February 26, 2024

Op-ed: Shelter-in-place orders are unimaginable where I’m from

Is the idea of gun violence, escaped murder suspects and sheltering in place so ingrained in Americans?

Nova Spier is a senior majoring in journalism and mass communication and an exchange student from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

When I told friends and family in the Netherlands I would study abroad in the United States this semester, they asked me if I was worried about school shootings and feeling unsafe on campus. I waved away their concerns with the feeling that GW has a quite safe campus, never expecting to have a shelter-in-place order during the second week of class.

On Wednesday, we all got the message via GW Alert: A dangerous individual was reported near campus, and the Foggy Bottom Campus went into shelter-in-place mode.

A student told me nothing like this had happened for a very long time, so I should not be the only one shocked by this experience. However, when my class in the School of Media and Public Affairs building finished at 6 p.m., almost two hours after the first alert, most students just took off — they left the building confidently like it was just a regular Wednesday. At the same time, other students talked about how you could lock the classroom door from the inside so no threats could enter the room.

I could not relate to either of these reactions. As an exchange student, I had never experienced anything like this before, and I had no idea how to react. In high school in the Netherlands, we practiced what to do when a fire alarm goes off, not how to shelter in place because a murder suspect has escaped police custody.

So, should I just walk to my residence hall, as so many of my classmates did? Should I stay in place since I live in Townhouse Row — just a few blocks away from GW Hospital and on the same street the alerts told us to avoid? My professor was nice enough to walk me there, knowing that this was all a shock to me.

The news added to my confusion. I got texts about the incident being breaking news, the FBI getting involved and a helicopter circling above campus. The headlines and stories conflicted with the image I saw when looking out the window: students walking calmly outside, almost as if they were not aware of what was happening.

The alerts, the news and the situation outside seemed so contradictory. I felt safe — the suspect probably hadn’t lingered on campus and fled. The threat did not seem that serious, and the whole situation seemed like a joke that people made memes about, which they did and circulated on Instagram.

At the same time, I was a little shaken. Why did everyone act like this was normal? It wasn’t, right? I just didn’t know how to feel and how to act. I wanted to talk to friends or family at home. But because of the time difference, they were already asleep as the whole situation unfolded. I didn’t feel like waking up my parents with a phone call: “No need to worry, but a murder suspect is walking around on campus, so we’re all sheltering in place. It’s not that bad, he is only wearing one shoe and probably isn’t armed. Just wanted to let you guys know. Sorry I woke you up … have a good night’s sleep!”

Once I got back home, I could fortunately talk to the other exchange students I live with, who were just as shocked about this whole experience as I was. We spoke about how something like this would never happen in the Netherlands, South Korea, Argentina and many other places.

Even though people said quite soon after the first alert that the suspect probably wasn’t armed, the fact that there is more gun violence in the United States and firearms are easier to buy and access here made the situation scarier than it would have been in any of our home countries. Our home countries generally do not allow civilians to buy, own or walk around with a gun. That makes the risk of a dangerous individual walking around significantly lower and the need to shelter in place almost nil.

At least an hour passed by while my housemates and I shared our experiences. It was a way to procrastinate all the reading and assignments we all needed to do, while simultaneously dealing with the situation. How can you concentrate after something happens that just seems unthinkable at your home university? Why did all the American students walk around like this was a normal day? Is the idea of gun violence, escaped murder suspects and sheltering in place so ingrained in them?

Another exchange student summarized the situation particularly well: “At least now we can say we’ve got the full American experience.”

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