Three days after the Boston Marathon bombing thousands of scared and bewildered students evacuated upper campus after reports of a “suspicious package” near the 400 building on the Cabrillo College campus.
The package, which was a student’s project for a public speaking class showing how to use recycled newspaper instead of gift wrapping, was the size of a large shoebox, wrapped in newspaper with a bow on top made of brown paper. It was found on top of a recycling bin
Communications instructor, Kanda Whaley noticed the package outside of room 411 at around 9.30 a.m on Thursday, saying that “it looked a bit odd.”
After three other students mentioned the suspicious box, she called the divisions office where people then called the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department’s Cabrillo office. Whaley said she always referred to as a suspicious package, and never a bomb.
According to Whaley and the Sheriff’s office, earlier in the day deputies arrested a man who had been banned from campus, making officers more suspicious.
The Santa Cruz County Bomb Team inspected the package and eventually used a robot to destroy it at around 12:50 pm. Nothing was found inside the box.
Chase LeClair, 18, complained that he was stuck in the parking garage for an hour and if it had been a real bomb, it would have been a disaster.
“There were two cops blocking the entrance to Cabrillo,” he said. “I walked past them, and up by the cafeteria where there was a line of about four or five policemen. I walked right past them, heading to class because I didn’t think anything was up. Then, that’s when someone told me I should turn around, there’s a bomb threat.”
Cabrillo’s Interim President John Hendrickson said despite some problems the operation went smoothly.
“When we asked our security, which is the Santa County Sheriff’s Department to look at the package, it became a police matter at that point,” he said. “The faculty, students, and staff behaved very well in vacating the premises, giving room for these people to do their work. Overall, though, the unplanned drill showed room for improvement in several areas.”
Hendrickson said the 15,000-student school needs more interagency cooperation and efficient procedures should another threat occur in the future.
Many students weren’t informed about the scare and teachers and staff were confused. Despite having a text alert system, many hadn’t heard about it. It didn’t go up on the campus’ home page, Facebook or Twitter until after noon because the people with the passwords weren’t there.
Hendrickson said he hopes to expand the number of staff members at Cabrillo who have access to the “all student-all employee communications systems” in order to update the college’s website and social media outlets, such as Facebook and Twitter. The faculty members with the passcodes for these outlets were not present at the time of the incident.
Student Jessica Espinoza, 26, said the administration could have done better.
“But I don’t fault the school because from my understanding this is not something that has happened in the past, or at least in the last 10 years,” she said.
In the past 15 years the campus has been evacuated three times because of bomb scares.
Many students were puzzled as to whether or not to go to the parking lots and retrieve their cars and leave. The confusion resulted in serious traffic delays, which several found to be troublesome.
“I got in my car in the parking garage and for an hour and a half, could not move, either direction,” said Phillip Thompson, 20. “I could in no way get out of the parking garage with 900 other kids in the same garage.”
Deputies made no attempt to stop any of the traffic on Soquel to help funnel the students out of the parking area, he added. Students also have said that had it been a case of there actually being a bomb, these poor evacuation plans could have made for a really serious problem.
Philosophy instructor Claudia Close said the incident went relatively smoothly.
“The police force was really very present and times before they hadn’t,” she said. “There were a few glitches. Evidently some of the phones didn’t work. I was in my classroom and the phone never rang.
“The Alert U system, had any of us had our phones out, may have worked better. There are some issues to be dealt with, but for the most part I was pretty impressed how they emptied the campus in a short period of time.”
Hendrickson said the Alert U system, which lets subscribers know what’s going on via text messages, worked well.
“The critical mass, a large, large number of people affected were getting these messages very timely and correctly and it worked,” he said.
Overall, he said it went well.
“Even though it may have seemed like overplay after the incident was over, because there was never anything in that box to be afraid of, I’m still glad with the way we handled it.”
A status report on this incident review will be made at the Cabrillo College Planning Council meeting on May 29. College Planning Council is the highest level of shared governance at Cabrillo College and includes a student representative. The meeting is open to the public.
As a precaution for any future emergency students are encouraged to sign up for the school’s Alert U system. To sign up, text Cabrillo to 253788 on your phone or go online to www.alertu.org/cabrillo.
The staff of the Cabrillo Voice contributed to this story.