On May 11, the Hauge Administration Building and Rieke Science Center were evacuated after an alleged bomb threat and the university’s emergency response plan was put to the test.
The written threat was discovered in Hauge around 11 a.m. and identified Rieke as the target. Both buildings were evacuated as a precaution, said Jesus Villahermosa, director of PLU’s Campus Safety and deputy sheriff with Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. After a five-hour search, including an extensive sweep by canine units, the threat proved to be false.
“There’s no better way to learn about crisis than to go through one and no one gets hurt,” Villahermosa said.
Nearly a month later, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department is still investigating the incident, Villahermosa said. The department doesn’t have many leads and is asking anyone with information to come forward.
When the perpetrator is found, they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, Villahermosa said. Making a bomb threat is a felony crime, and the judicial system has little tolerance for such threats.
“It’s not taken lightly,” he said.
This was the first major crisis to hit campus during Villahermosa’s tenure at PLU, which began last October. He said he was impressed by the cooperation and patience of the campus community during the incident. Many faculty members, like English professor Tom Campbell (pictured), adjusted to the closed buildings by holding class outside on the grass.
One moment in particular will forever stick in his mind: As the canine unit was completing its sweep of Hauge, Villahermosa addressed the crowd gathered in Red Square about the situation and apologized for the necessary inconvenience. As he walked away, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause.
“I was touched. I was actually touched,” he said. “I thought, ‘What an interesting response.’ It was really cool and another indicator of what a really tight-knit community this is. It will be one of the most memorable moments of my career.”
The April massacre at Virginia Tech brought to light weaknesses in emergency response plans at colleges and universities across the country, Villahermosa said. The university was already re-examining its response plan before the incident on May 11, and the incident helped identify areas the university needs to improve, he said.
In addition to his job at PLU and with the Sheriff’s Department, Villahermosa also serves as a speaker and trainer at schools and corporations across the United States and Canada about school- and workplace-related violence. He is excited to apply his expertise at PLU.
“I’m glad I’m here at this point in time,” he said. “I want to help PLU become a trendsetter in emergency response … we’re on track, moving forward.”
The university is currently working to improve aspects of its emergency response plan for the future, especially communicating information about an incident to the campus community, he said. Additionally, he hopes that students, faculty and staff will familiarize themselves with PLU’s emergency response plan. It can be found at the Environmental Health and Safety Web site .
“We want to make PLU students and staff part of the plan,” Villahermosa said. With more than 4,500 people on campus during the academic year, it’s imperative that everyone be alert and aware, he said.