A Death at the Front Door

March 22, 2012

Rob Frye
Director, Campus Recreation
Florida International University

I took the call at home about 9:10pm on Thursday, March 25, 2010. It was one of those calls a campus recreation director never wants to receive – there had been a stabbing outside the Recreation Center, campus police were on-site, the suspect was on the loose, and our staff were attending the victim. In the fastest 20 minutes that a normal 30-minute drive could be made, I arrived to find the building surrounded by flashing lights, a crowd of people outside, my staff on lock-down inside, and the beginning of what was to become a long and tragic week for the University.

General facts of the incident

  • Two Intramural basketball games had occurred in the 8pm hour in the Rec Center, one game involving several varsity football players and the other game involving the alleged suspect.
  • After the games ended at approx. 8:50pm, players and spectators from all four teams left the building when a small crowd soon developed about 20 feet outside the front doors.
  • Within minutes, an altercation occurred between the victim (Kendall Berry, a current varsity football player not present at the IM game) and the alleged assailant. The front desk attendant, unable to see exactly what was happening outside, called the Facility Coordinator and said a fight was happening.
  • At approx. 9:02pm, a male, later identified as the alleged assailant, ran in through the front doors and headed toward the back of the building, followed seconds later by someone opening a front door and shouted to call an ambulance. Shouts to building staff to stop the running male were unsuccessful as he sprinted out a back emergency exit into a dark parking lot and escaped.
  • At the same time, one desk attendant called 911 while another called Campus Police. An Intramural Supervisor who was in the lobby vicinity immediately responded to the situation by administering first aid/CPR to the victim. He was quickly joined by the Facility Graduate Assistant on duty carrying an AED and who had also ordered the building locked down.
  • Campus Police arrived within 7 minutes immediately followed by city police (as there was a major event happening across campus). Fire/Rescue arrived 12 minutes after the incident and took over control of the victim from our staff.
  • Within 14-15 minutes of the incident, not only had I been notified, but also the University President, Athletics Director, Police Chief, and all my upward reporting line (the Executive Director of Student Affairs Auxiliaries and the Vice-President for Student Affairs). At this time, all outdoor intramurals were suspended and the Recreation Field cleared for possible life-flight helicopter landing. The victim, though, was transported by ambulance to the nearest hospital. It was later learned that, unfortunately the victim had died of his wounds in transit.
  • At approx. 10:25pm, the University sent out the first alert using InformaCast and PantherAlert that, “WE HAD A FELONIOUS ASSAULT BY THE RECREATION CENTER SUSPECT AT LARGE TUNE INTO LOCAL MEDIA FOR MORE.” InformaCast audio messages are sent via VoIP telephones, building-mounted external speakers, emergency phones, and emergency call boxes across campus. The PantherAlert (a WENS-Wireless Emergency Notification System) message was sent to over 21,000 system subscribers. A half hour later, a follow-up message is sent, as well as Facebook and Twitter updates.
  • All those Rec Center staff present during the incident were questioned by both campus and city police between 11:00pm and 3:00am. Meanwhile departmental staff was notified by email and the decision was made by administrators to reopen at noon the morning of the Friday the 26th instead of the normal 6:00am time.
  • At 3:00am, upon recommendation and approval by law enforcement and University authorities, Rec Center staff cleaned up the crime scene.

In the following days, additional information became available. The alleged suspect, whom our student staff recognized and had reported to police that evening, was publicly identified. He had been a former walk-on with the football team who never made it. There was no interaction between the victim and suspect either in the intramural games or the Rec Center, but there was an apparent connection between the two men and a common female friend (who turned out to be a former student employee in the department) that involved an altercation several days earlier between the assailant and the woman. Two days after the incident, the alleged suspect turned himself in to police. As of this time, he is still awaiting trial.

After the incident, our first concern was with our student staff — how they would deal with the incident itself (especially when many of them knew both the victim and assailant) and how they would deal with the attention (questions from authorities and friends who knew they were working at the time). And even though they were more mature age-wise than our other student staff, the two first-responding students warranted special attention since they were “hands-on” with the victim. We informed staff on duty that evening that anyone scheduled to work the next day need not report in — and most took that opportunity. The University’s Counseling and Psychological Services Office made themselves available that evening and over the next few days for anyone wanting to talk or needing assistance dealing with the tragedy. Several utilized the services. A session in the Rec Center was held the Monday following the incident and was attended by about twenty individuals, both student and professional staff. The Athletic Director was there to thank the students for their efforts and to reassure them.

The day after the incident, an internal department review of how staff handled the situation was performed. First response procedures, emergency protocol, and communications were evaluated to been properly performed. Both student first-responders were reassured that they had correctly done everything possible in their rescue attempts. Staff totally cooperated with police, both campus and city, and their assistance in identifying individuals involved was key. The only issue determined was that our students should not have tried to apprehend the suspect as he fled through the building — the threat of a weapon and further violence/injury being the reason. These results were later reaffirmed in the University’s own in-depth investigation into the incident.

Since the incident, we have continued to educate and train student staff in the same emergency response procedures followed that evening, but have added an active shooter scenario to the process. Given the events that have happened at this and other universities, most students have been very appreciative of this training.

One of the most curious aspects of this incident involved dealing with the media. It was discovered not long after the occurrence that tweets went out almost immediately from students who observed the altercation from the crowd or who were working out in the building and witnessed some of what happened. Less than ½ hour after the incident, video reports appeared on television news and on YouTube, taken from cell phones. Faulty and/or inaccurate information spread quickly — the Rec Center was were the football players worked out (it’s not) and that it resulted from an argument during an intramural game (it didn’t).

The fact that it involved a varsity football player, especially in Miami, quickly drew attention from national media — ESPN did a piece within an hour, and local media news trucks were here within minutes. Since those student staff members who were present were instructed not to talk about the incident until meeting with police, local investigative news reporters were asking, “What was the University hiding?” They became so intrusive in their pursuit of “student comments” that they had to be limited to 20 feet from the front doors. On-camera interviews with police and student “witnesses” kept the Recreation Center on page one and every local news show for 3 days. The fact that the police had painted a large red “X” at the location of the stabbing only reinforced the tragic air the building then had.

It wasn’t until official University spokespeople provided official details and the alleged assailant turned himself in did the media fervor die down. After a week, finally being authorized to remove the red “X” was the first step in moving on. Not the type of light that a campus recreation director wants to see his/her facility get TV and media coverage, but with today’s technology and demand for “news”, it has to be expected that control over what information becomes public will be limited in a situation such as this.

University Response
As with many of the tragedies that have happened recently on college campuses, students soon responded with a flower and candle memorial, located at the “X” on the sidewalk outside the Rec Center. It remained there until after the memorial service. The event, which unfortunately was the third high-profile memorial service held on campus in a 2-year period, was located in the University’s basketball arena, across the street from the Rec Center. The arena was at full capacity as family, teammates, friends and guests recognized the victim for his playing skills, friendship and character. The lasting comment from Kendall’s father extolled young people to “just walk away from violence.”

In an announcement on April 1, University President Dr. Mark Rosenburg commended all the students, staff and first responders for their rapid and focused efforts to help the victim and the University community that evening, but he expressed dissatisfaction with the University’s emergency response process. He directed Law School Dean Alex Acosta to head the official campus investigation into the incident. On April 19, the President honored the Recreational Services students and staff who were involved in the incident with a reception at his official campus residence. Co-sponsored by the University’s Office of Human Resources, everyone involved received Certificates of Merit, and the two first-responding students received personalized plaques commemorating their service to the University. The President’s final words — “Thanks for the best job possible in this tragedy!”

The Acosta Report, issued May 14, supported the actions of the students, staff and first responders, but raised several issues regarding the University’s emergency response operational structure, alert planning/activation/transmission, integration and ease of use of the various communication technologies available, and communication in the chain-of-command. The President accepted almost all the report’s recommendations and since the results were made public, the University has taken the following steps:

  •  Made preparations for a variety of emergencies — Living in South Florida, we have plenty of experience dealing with weather-related emergencies. We now prepare for a wide range of possibilities, and have a pre-drafted, pre-scripted alert for each.
  • Improved the emergency response plan by having pre-approved criteria for what triggers an emergency alert, and who has the authority to activate it. Improved training for all those involved in issuing alerts, and what alert(s) to use for what event.
  • Improved and regularly tested the technologies used to put out alerts. Requiring (vs. requesting) enrollment in the University’s PantherAlert notification systems for all students, faculty and staff. Reduced the time delays in notification by eliminating duplicate and outdated data entries in that system. Worked with telecom carriers to reduce the chances that emergency email and text messages would be blocked or designated as spam.
  • Ensured that secondary information sources (University HelpLine, home page, Facebook, and Twitter sites) are updated immediately with emergency information.
  • Made sure the chain-of-command structure and call lists for emergency managers and senior-level administration are continually updated. Raised the profile of the University’s Emergency Management Director.
  • Conducted more joint training exercises (both tabletop and field) with city/county law enforcement partners and University personnel.
  • Improved campus signage to better direct emergency response vehicles.

Nothing that our staff did or did not do could have prevented the tragedy that occurred on the evening of March 25, and the incident still leaves its mark on the department, student and professional staff, and the University. We discuss it in our annual staff training sessions, educate undergraduate and graduate students in Higher Education and Recreation/Sports Management classes about the experience, participate in Emergency Management drills and exercises, and try to pay closer attention to the general student “climate”.

One question that we often get is if we had security cameras at the time — we did not. And while we have been reassured many times that cameras would not have prevented what happened, they may have assisted in the investigation. It so happened that on that very morning of the incident, I had had a discussion with my supervisor about the need to install security cameras in the Rec Center — sometimes your gut needs to speak louder and earlier because you never know…

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