By Jorge Campos
When a suspicious man entered a classroom occupied by students March 19, and left a threatening note with the words “shoot” and “head” in it, Communication Professor Vera Holder called Santa Ana College’s campus safety office.
No one answered. Holder again dialed the safety office’s number from the extension line inside another professor’s office. Her call was forwarded to an automatic voice mail. She remembered an old number and tried it.
Her fear for her students’ safety amplified every time her call went unanswered.
While waiting for a response, Holder herded nine students inside a classroom and locked the door.
She dialed 911.
The dispatcher asked Holder where campus safety officers were. Despite multiple calls, they haven’t responded, Holder said.
Minutes later, SAPD arrived. After questioning Holder and some of the students, the police concluded that the man was not a credible threat.
But that wasn’t the issue for Holder and her students. It was larger than that.
Already on heightened alert after nine victims were killed by a gunman at a community college in Oregon last year, Holder did the one thing Campus Safety officials told her to do: if you see something, say something.
SAC is in the middle of a city where there have been 70 reported shootings since January. Holder and her students were dealing with a potentially deadly scenario without help.
But college safety officials were quick to downplay the incident.
“No direct threats were made to anyone on campus,” Safety and Security Chief Alistair Winter said. SAC Campus Safety Chief Lt. Michael Colver echoed his superior’s comments saying the campus is safe.
“Based on call logs and incident reports Santa Ana College continues to be a safe campus,” SAC President Erlinda Martinez said.
The events just days after the Saturday incident tell a different story.
On Tuesday, a helicopter circled the east and central parts of campus. SAPD was searching for what they claimed was an unarmed suspect wanted for the use of counterfeit currency, Public Information Officer Anthony Bertagna said.
Minutes later, the man was spotted in Lot 4. He ran down the campus access road on 17th Street towards Big 5 and was gang-tackled by multiple SAPD officers. The man was armed with a knife, witnesses said. Drug paraphernalia and a container of medical-grade marijuana can be seen on the ground as the suspect was handcuffed, el Don photographs from the scene revealed. Some witnesses say they saw the suspect pull a gun from a pouch in his sweater, though police and campus safety would not confirm if he was armed.
“Police did not recommend or suggest that we lock down the campus at all and the whole thing was over in 15 minutes from the time we were notified,” Colver said.
On the same day, one man was shot while another two were pistol-whipped in a gang-related incident at Centennial Park, SAPD said.
The Centennial Education Center, a satellite campus, is located nearby. Last year, authorities found a body floating in a pond near the Centennial Bookstore. There were two officers on duty Saturday, but when Holder called campus safety headquarters, only one officer was at SAC, while the other patrolled the districts’ satellite campuses. Typically, two officers are on duty. At scheduled times, one patrols the CEC and the Digital Media Center at Bristol Street and Edinger Avenue. On normal traffic days, CEC is about a 10-minute drive from SAC, while the DMC is about seven to eight minutes away.
Safety officers who work weekends are not full-time employees, and are not supervised, Colver said. One of the officers carries a college-owned cellphone where all calls are forwarded.
Last year, the board of trustees unanimously approved re-arming some campus safety officers, reversing a 25-year-policy.
An increase in high profile mass shootings across the nation, specifically the one at Santa Monica College where seven died including the gunman, prompted trustees to allocate $500,000 to hire, train and arm safety personnel.
None of the officers on duty Saturday were armed. Only Colver can carry a firearm here, and he is not on duty during the weekend.
Cuts in other district services will help meet the costs of the new positions, as will budget and salary cuts in other areas, RSCCD Chancellor Raul Rodriguez said last year.
After the incident, the campus safety officer who was out on patrol took Holder’s statement.
The other officer, who stayed on campus and failed to take a call, Holder said, was dismissive. One student, Erin Dobson, expressed her frustration with the safety officer’s line of questioning. The officer asked Dobson if Holder had “overreacted.”
The officer who was not responsive was having difficulties that day, Colver said. Citing employee privacy laws, he would not elaborate.
Winter said they’re investigating why the officer failed to answer the call.
Meanwhile, college safety officials encouraged the campus community to call them if they see something suspicious.