Looking back, looking forward after stray bullet incident

In the aftermath of the off-campus incident Wednesday evening that resulted in a stray bullet injuring a GCU student while he was on campus, we want to take this opportunity to share further information with our students and provide updates on what is happening as we move forward. While the message is fairly lengthy and comprehensive, we encourage students to read the entire message.

First and foremost, we are thankful to hear that the GCU student who was injured by the stray bullet, Jay Morales, as well as the two victims who were at the scene near 37th Avenue and Vermont Avenue, only received non-life-threatening injuries and are going to be OK. As we shared Thursday night, Jay’s family reports that the support he has received from friends on campus has been “overwhelming” and they “are thankful that we have been able to send him to school at GCU.”

We look forward to Jay’s return to campus, and our continued thoughts and prayers are with him and his family as he recovers.

Off-campus incident

The incident, which occurred near 37th Avenue and Vermont Avenue, involved a domestic dispute in which multiple gunshots were fired and also injured two victims, an adult male and a teenage female, who were at the scene.

Because of the types of automatic weapons used in this incident, those bullets have the capacity to travel longer distances, especially if fired into the air. The bullet that struck Jay Morales traveled approximately one mile before hitting him.

While the circumstances in this incident are probably different, there is a law in Arizona known as Shannon’s Law, enacted in 2000, that makes it a felony to discharge firearms randomly into the air. That was enacted when a 14-year-old girl, Shannon Smith, was killed by a stray bullet in June 1999 in Phoenix.

Wednesday’s incident is unprecedented at GCU. In at least the 14 years the current leadership team has been at the University, we have never had a student struck by a stray bullet.

Lockdown not necessary

While there was understandably some initial confusion connecting the off-campus event with the stray bullet gunshot injury suffered by our student as well as a second stray bullet that struck a GCU residence hall, our GCU Public Safety team arrived at the scene on campus immediately and was able to ascertain that there was not an imminent threat to the campus community. Following further conversations with Phoenix Police, and based on their recommendations, it was determined that there was no need to lock down the campus or the surrounding community, which would have created more panic and confusion than necessary.

We trust the experience of trained police officers with both GCU Public Safety and Phoenix Police in making that recommendation and believe it was the right decision.

In the future, if a situation does occur in which GCU determines there is an immediate threat to life and safety, the following actions will occur:

  • GCU will send an Emergency Alert Notification with instructions to shelter in place.
  • If you are on campus:
    • If inside: Students faculty, and staff should take the following actions:
      • Stay inside your residence hall, classroom, building or office and lock the doors.
      • Remain calm and mute your cell phones
      • This is the Hide component of Run, Hide, Fight
    • If outside: Students, faculty and staff should quickly move away from the danger
      • Take shelter in the nearest campus building
      • Close the doors behind you
    • Stay away from windows and do not leave until you receive the All Clear through Emergency Alert Notification System.
  • If you are off campus:
    • Stay away from campus and wait for additional instructions. Depending on the type of emergency, you may not be able enter campus or park in your designated parking structure.

Run, Hide, Fight training is available within the Student Portal’s New Student Orientation Module and is considered a component of the onboarding process. Additionally, all student workers are required to complete the Run, Hide, Fight training module.

Moving forward, we are also looking at possibly incorporating active shooter or emergency training exercises into fire drills that occur on campus.

RAVE emergency alerts

After determining there was not an imminent threat to the campus Wednesday night, accurate information was gathered and a RAVE emergency alert communication was sent to students, faculty and staff.

There was an initial anomaly in the message because character count limitations are different for RAVE alerts received via email vs. those received via text. As a result, part of the text alert was cut off. This was recognized immediately, and a follow-up alert was sent with instructions on where to view the full message.

We are working with IT to address this and provide further training to avoid this in the future.

We have heard from some students who said they did not receive the RAVE alert. Students are automatically signed up for the RAVE alert system when they enroll at GCU and are not removed unless they intentionally opt out, which we strongly discourage.

IF YOU DID NOT RECEIVE THE RAVE ALERT, that likely means that the phone number you have on file is either incorrect, a home number (vs. a cell), or was changed at some point. If you believe this is the case, contact your Student Services Counselor to ensure your correct phone number is on file.

There is also the possibility that you may have settings on your phone that, to avoid spam, would send bulk emails into a junk folder.

We will continue to use multiple forms of communication – RAVE text and email alerts, direct emails to students, social media and information posted on our website – to ensure students receive such messages. In addition to Twitter and Facebook, those messages also will be sent via Instagram in the future. We also are looking into the GCU App as a possible form of emergency communication.

Timing of communications

As we mentioned in a previous message, because the criminal activity occurred several blocks away, there was initial confusion and conflicting information about what occurred on campus. The first priority was to tend to the injured student and ensure there was no imminent threat to the campus community. That was determined quickly; otherwise, a RAVE text alert would have been sent immediately.

After the off-campus incident occurred at approximately 6 p.m., members of the GCU leadership team were back on campus by 6:30 p.m. and immediately were in contact with other GCU staff members and Phoenix Police to ascertain the circumstances surrounding the incident so that we could communicate accurate information to students as soon as possible. The first communication via RAVE alert was sent at 8:12 p.m., which was followed up by communications via social media, direct emails to students and communications to student leaders and parent groups.

While we would have liked to disseminate that information to students sooner, we felt it imperative to provide accurate information rather than misinformation while this unprecedented situation was still being sorted out. We also wanted to contact the parents of the injured student first so that they were not getting this news about their son via a text alert or email, and to prevent a premature communication that would cause parents of the other 25,000 students on campus from worrying that it was their son or daughter who was involved.

In the future, depending on circumstances, we will attempt to share an initial general alert message that acknowledges a police situation is occurring with no immediate threat to the campus, followed by more detailed messages as we are able to verify the information.

Safety measures in place

GCU’s campus is extremely safe, with very low instances of crime compared to other universities. This is the result of several factors: (1) the character and integrity of our students, (2) the decision to invest in our own 200-person trained campus Public Safety Department, which many universities don’t have, and (3) safety measures in place, such as approximately 6 miles of fencing and walls as well as security stations at all entrances.

In addition to making our campus safe, having our own police force also frees up Phoenix Police to focus their efforts on the surrounding community.

A federal Weed and Seed grant was in place before 2012 to support Phoenix Police efforts to eliminate crime in designated communities. When funding for that grant program stopped, GCU stepped in and created a multimillion dollar public-private Neighborhood Safety Initiative (NSI) with the City of Phoenix to increase safety in the neighborhoods surrounding GCU. That initial five-year agreement has been extended twice and has had a significant impact in deterring criminal activity for the past nine years.

Unfortunately, in the past few months, a certain amount of that progress has reversed itself as we’ve seen an uptick in criminal activity. This is a symptom of what is happening in many major U.S. cities as problems with homelessness, drug addiction (particularly fentanyl) and sex trafficking are increasing everywhere.

The vast majority of our GCU neighbors are hard-working, law-abiding, family-oriented people who are trying to make a better life for themselves. There should be no tolerance for criminal activity that impacts those people, and we will continue to lend our support to City of Phoenix efforts to keep our students and the surrounding community safe. We also have been working with the City of Phoenix on other projects that will enhance safety around the campus.

Currently, only about 50% of the funds we provide for the Neighborhood Safety Initiative are able to be utilized because of the shortage of police officers with Phoenix PD, which is another widespread societal problem. We are exploring options to reinvest some of those unused NSI funds to purchase additional GCU police vehicles that could patrol on and off our campus. Increased police presence is a significant deterrent to criminal activity, and we are prepared to increase those efforts.

Particularly in the short term, we encourage students to use their best judgment when traveling off campus, particularly at night, and not to travel alone.

Counseling services available

As a reminder to students, please be aware that the Office of Student Care staff is available on the second floor of the Student Life Building 26 at 602-639-7007 or email [email protected] to assist anyone who needs support or counseling.

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Bible Verse

"(Jesus) was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put Him to death by nailing Him to the cross." (Acts 2:23)

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