Director of Campus Safety Ike Sloas sent an email informing students about his plan to test RhodesAlert, a mass texting system used to communicate emergencies on Sep. 3. He also asked students to update their phone numbers for the system. The email went on to state in part: “This fall, we are focusing on active shooter prevention and survival guidance so that you are as prepared as possible, should such a situation arise on campus.”
The Clery Act requires institutions to alert their campuses by issuing a timely warning for crime that represents an ongoing threat and an emergency notification upon the confirmation of an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or employees occurring on the campus. Clery Act crimes include homicide, sexual assault, and weapons law violations, among other things.
Emergency notifications were not a Clery Act requirement until 2008, when they were added with the renewal of the Higher Education Act. This change came a year after Virginia Tech took hours to send an alert after a gunman killed 30 people. The school was subsequently fined for violating the Clery Act, forcing a conversation on whether or not the Clery Act timely warning requirement provided enough of a mechanism to warn the campus about immediate emergencies like an active shooter incident.
This recent campus safety update comes a few months after students were sent an alert about two firearms found on campus.
On May 12, a Rhodes College student was arrested after police found two loaded firearms and half a dozen magazines among his possessions near his on-campus dorm. The next morning Rhodes campus safety sent out an alert to students that said in part:
“Around 1:00 Sunday afternoon, a student reported they found a bag containing two firearms in a stairwell in East Village. A campus security officer secured the weapons and the Memphis police department was immediately notified. The investigation revealed the weapons belonged to a Rhodes student who was moving out of the residence hall. The police investigation is ongoing, and the weapons have been confiscated. The student has been banned from campus.”
Police records show that a student called campus safety once he found the two handguns and ammunition, including two 30-round magazines belonging to an AR-15, after assuming the possessions were left in the dorm hallway as donations. A campus security officer then reported an armed person on campus to the Memphis police.
The student who owned the firearms returned to his dorm sometime after his things were taken, and sometime before the police arrived. He called campus safety to inquire about his missing possessions, which included personal items, his TV, and his PlayStation, at which point around 8-10 police units showed up in front of East Village.
After police officers completed a search of his dorm room, he was arrested on a felony weapon law violation. Possession of a firearm on school grounds can either be a misdemeanor or a felony offense. The offense rises to a felony only if the individual has the “intent to go armed.”
After the student was questioned by police for hours, he was released from custody and all charges were dropped. Rhodes expelled and banned the student from campus.
Rhodes’s weapon policy states that the college strictly prohibits possession of weapons of any type by students, employees or visitors on all college property. Violators (including those individuals with valid Tennessee gun carry permits) are subject to suspension, expulsion, termination, or any combination of appropriate sanctions.
Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1309 requires each chief administrator of a public or private school to display in prominent locations about the school a sign, at least six inches (6”) high and fourteen inches (14”) wide, stating:
FELONY. STATE LAW PRESCRIBES A MAXIMUM PENALTY OF SIX (6) YEARS IMPRISONMENT AND A FINE NOT TO EXCEED THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS ($3,000) FOR CARRYING WEAPONS ON SCHOOL PROPERTY
According to one campus safety officer, signs with this warning were posted at campus entrances around late July or early August of this year.
When asked if the new addition of the signs were in any way related to the guns found on campus May 12, a campus safety officer who is listed as a witness on the police report said, “well that’s why we put the signs up, because there were no signs that stated, ‘you can’t do this’.”
Rhodes, even as a private institution, should “have signs posted on every building, including residence halls stating no weapons,” Jay Johnson, Campus Police Specialist at Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, LLC, said.
“If the signs were put up afterward, they were a little late,” Johnson said.
The Sou’wester reached out to Director of Campus Safety Ike Sloas through email with a list of ten questions. Sloas only answered one question, which asked him to explain his choice to send out a campus safety alert about the firearms a day after they were found.
“I was on campus on Sunday, May 13 and in close contact with the responding campus safety officers and MPD officers,” Sloas wrote about the guns found on May 12.
“I was prepared to issue an immediate RhodesAlert to the campus via text message. However, through the investigation conducted by Rhodes Campus Safety and MPD, we determined there was not an immediate threat to campus, therefore a RhodesAlert was not issued,” Sloas wrote in reference to the same system Rhodes only recently tested and updated earlier this month.
“The college notified the campus of the situation Monday, May 14. The information contained in the report was confirmed with the Memphis Police Department,” Sloas wrote in reference to a campus safety alert email he sent on May 13.
The Sou’wester did not ask Sloas if any connection existed between the guns found on campus, the recent sign postings, and the new planned active shooter training. However, Sloas contradicted what other campus safety officers told The Sou’wester in his email, stating in part:
“There is no nexus between the May incident you’re asking about the signs being posted at campus entrances. The signs are required by state law and were on order prior to May 13th.”
“Additionally, there is no connection between the May incident and the college’s planned active shooter training. All colleges, including Rhodes, go through regular active shooter training and mitigation efforts.”
As of Oct. 2018, the last time Rhodes had a campus wide active shooter training session was during the summer of 2015.
“Again, I can say definitively, to suggest the aforementioned items are connected to the May incident you reference would be dishonest,” Sloas said.
“The Office of Campus [S]afety is dedicated to the safety and wellbeing of our campus community. We plan to schedule active shooter prevention and survival training with the Memphis Police Department in the next month.”
NOTE: This story has been updated to include details about previous active shooter training at Rhodes.