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Ryan Johnson, Published September 14 2012

MULTIMEDIA: Coordinated effort clears NDSU after bomb threat; evacuation ultimately president's call

FARGO – The North Dakota State University campus was reopened for classes Friday afternoon after a bomb threat prompted the evacuation of thousands of students, faculty and staff for several hours.

FBI spokesman Kyle Loven said someone at NDSU received a phone call about 9 a.m. Friday including “a threat of a bomb.” More information on the call was not available Friday.

“All the precautions were taken to evacuate students and personnel,” Loven said. “The FBI, along with state and local partners, did a thorough search of the campus.”

The campus was reopened at 1 p.m., and classes resumed at 2 p.m.

Loven said the FBI is still trying to determine if the threat against NDSU was related to a similar bomb threat Friday morning at the University of Texas in Austin.

At a news conference, Fargo police Lt. Joel Vettel and NDSU President Dean Bresciani said the threat against the university was general and didn’t include specifics.

Vettel told The Forum that in cases like this, the police department advises university officials on how to handle the threat. But the decision to order a full evacuation of all university property, including agricultural facilities and the downtown campus, was ultimately up to Bresciani, he said.

“We really look to him to make that final decision,” he said.

NDSU ordered an evacuation at 9:45 a.m. and told everyone to get off campus by 10:15 a.m. Several agencies, including NDSU Police, the Fargo Fire Department and the North Dakota Highway Patrol, assisted in evacuating buildings.

Vettel said newer technology, including the university’s NotiFind system that alerted students through voicemails and text messages, made it possible to clear thousands out of the area within a matter of minutes.

“Overall, I think things went as smooth as they could,” he said.

In a written statement, Bresciani said the campus responded well to the situation. “This was an impressive, coordinated effort by university police, city, state and federal authorities,” he said.

Ray Boyer, director of university police and the safety office, agreed that the evacuation was well-handled with the help of local law enforcement and the cooperation of faculty, staff and students.

“I don’t think it could have gone much better,” he said.

But some evacuating students encountered traffic jams and blocked-off streets as they tried to leave.

One group of students in a car said they had spent 30 minutes in a traffic jam in the parking lot trying to get out, and were still stuck in traffic. Some students left campus on foot when traffic prevented them from getting to their cars. Freshman Logan Dahlgren and some friends stood across the street from campus, where his car was trapped for the moment.

“(I’m) a little angry, but I understand why,” Dahlgren said.

Many didn’t stray far from the campus, instead opting to watch police patrols and speculate on what was happening as they stood near the Bison Turf restaurant and pub just across 12th Avenue North from NDSU.

Freshman Breanna Nelson said her roommate woke her up around 10 a.m. and told her they had to get off campus.

She called to tell her friend Shawnee McKusick who also lives in the dorms, and they were still sitting in the parking lot waiting for news around noon. But neither said they were too worried about it.

“It could be someone trying to get attention, a publicity stunt or something,” Nelson said. “That’s why they do bomb threats in the first place.”

Vettel, who’s been with the Fargo Police Department for 13 years, said it was the first full evacuation of the NDSU campus that he’s aware of. Boyer, who’s been at NDSU for more than two decades, also couldn’t recall any other campus-wide evacuations.

Vettel said the FBI and the Fargo Police Department are now jointly investigating the incident. If caught, the person or people responsible for the threat could face several federal or state charges.

Loven said in cases like this, local officials have to balance the security of the public with a decision for evacuation that can disrupt the lives of thousands. But “safety comes first” as they consider the options, he said.

“I can’t necessarily speak for NDSU,” he said. “But it seems to me that they had the safety and welfare of their faculty and students at the forefront in their decision.”

Boyer said NDSU was well-prepared and has had a crisis management response plan in place for years that guided the university’s reaction to the situation Friday.

Chris McGoey, a national campus security expert based in Los Angeles, said virtually every university in the country has had at least one bomb threat. Most are hoaxes, or a student simply trying to get out of a test, he said.

In the past week, there were also bomb threats at the airports in both Fargo and Grand Forks.

Still, McGoey said it’s important for universities to work with local law enforcement and emergency responders to develop a comprehensive plan like the one in place at NDSU long before a threat is made against the school.

“There shouldn’t be guesswork,” he said. “The school administrators shouldn’t be flipping coins or taking a poll; all of this should have been talked about and discussed in advance.”

Forum reporter Charly Haley contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587

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