This story was updated at 4:52 p.m. with more information.
UTC Chancellor Steven Angle says the campus should have been put on lockdown Wednesday after reports that a man with a rifle was seen in the area.
A Chattanooga police officer walking to his house near the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus after his shift, still in full uniform and with his rifle in hand, set off a flurry of panic and an hourslong search for a reportedly armed suspect Wednesday afternoon.
Though there was heavy law enforcement response, an evacuation, and subsequent search of Fletcher Hall, the campus was never put on lockdown, prompting confusion and alarm among students and community members.
"In retrospect, we should have locked down the campus when the report came in of a possible suspicious person in Fletcher Hall and [the] Chattanooga Police Department responded in force. We will review the decisions that were made and decide whether our assessment process is adequate," Angle said in a statement Thursday. "While we are thankful that there was not a credible threat on our campus and our students were always safe, there is always an opportunity to assess our actions and consider potential changes to our procedures."
The university left it to professors' discretion whether or not they wanted to cancel classes, even during the active search, and many students said they wished they had received clearer information from the university.
Samantha Zimmerman, a senior at UTC, was on campus in Frist Hall — located next to Fletcher Hall — when she received an email from one of her professors telling students that classes were canceled.
"It was scary for sure," Zimmerman wrote in an email. " Since the school never went on lockdown, it was just really hard because we didn't really know if we were safe to leave or not. I understand how hard it can be to communicate with situations like these. But a couple students and I just remained in Frist; unsure of what to do, up until all things were clear."
Another student, Sam Jankiewicz, received a message from a professor at 12:47 p.m. telling students to assume classes would be held unless they heard otherwise.
Jankiewicz said he instead chose to leave campus because he felt his safety was threatened.
"Class was at 2 p.m. and no update that deemed everyone's safety was released until 1:45 p.m. or later," he said in an email. "I believe putting the campus on lockdown and cancelling classes would have given students much more peace of mind."
Jankiewicz and Zimmerman both said they thought university officials should have taken more precautions.
"Whether or not the reports of a suspicious/armed person near/on campus were valid or not, informing that to students and then failing to take necessary precautionary steps to ensure safety seems quite negligent," Jankiewicz said. "Telling students to just stay alert and continue to go to class without giving adequate information only caused more panic on campus."
Once law enforcement gave the all-clear Wednesday, the university said students would not be required to attend classes for the rest of the day and emphasized that it was still up to professors whether they wanted to cancel classes.
University officials said that there was never clear indication that an armed person was on campus, but the university received dozens of calls from concerned parents and students.
Later, the university posted in a tweet that it appreciated the feedback from concerned community members.
"We understand the distress a situation like today's — even when it turns out to be a false alarm — can cause for students, parents, faculty and the community. We appreciate the feedback & will continue to evaluate our procedures to best provide for the safety of the campus community," the tweet read.
Angle emphasized that the university will review its alert systems after Wednesday's incident.
"Our information systems and processes will be reviewed to ensure there are coordinated, timely and accurate messages across the campus and in the community," he said in the statement. "We take seriously the safety of our UTC family and being the reliable source of information for all things that impact our campus. The quick action by law enforcement agencies for the city, county, the FBI and UTC was well coordinated and effective in assuring the safety of our campus."
Robie Robinson, executive director of Emergency Services at UTC, also released a statement following the incident.
"Fortunately, Wednesday's incident turned out to be a potential and not an actual threat," he said. "Still, there was a tremendous campus response with extensive support from area law enforcement. We're grateful for the law enforcement support and that everyone on campus was safe. The incident was a learning opportunity and, should a similar threat arise in the future, we will choose to err on the side of safety by putting the campus on lockdown status in the event of any potential or actual threat," Robinson said in the Thursday statement.
UTC actually hosted an active shooter preparedness exercise involving local emergency responders, emergency planners and volunteers in March of this year.
The exercise focused on university police's ability to "respond to, control and neutralize an active shooter," according to a news release at the time.
In a news conference Wednesday, Chattanooga police Chief David Roddy also cautioned people to be more careful when getting and spreading information.
"Pause for a moment and consider where their information is coming from before [you] pass that along," he said. "Because it does create real fear."
"We do not in any way critique anyone for calling in something that they directly see that concerns them," he added. "The part that I think we should pay better attention to is what do we do with the information that we heard from someone else. If that is so far removed from the actual incident itself, there's a pretty good chance it's not going to reflect what law enforcement and first responders are being asked to respond to, and it changes the entire mechanism and dynamic of how we respond."
Staff writer Rosana Hughes contributed to this story.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757- 6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.