Manhunt Paralyzes Boston Colleges

As the manhunt for the surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspect paralyzed the city Friday, life at the metro region’s more than 50 colleges and universities ground to a halt.

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Police officers secure a school building at MIT, near where an MIT officer on campus was reportedly shot dead in Cambridge, Mass. on April 18, 2013.

The schools at a standstill are among the world’s most elite, with students clamoring for a chance to attend. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, campus was closed after a university police officer was killed late Thursday following an altercation with the suspects. But even at schools without any direct tie to the case, the rhythm of life was put on pause as classes were canceled, students were ordered to stay inside, and faculty were asked to stay home — an emotional week prolonged, seemingly without end.

Anne Parlato, a musicology graduate student at Boston University, woke up to nearly a dozen text messages from campus police ordering students to stay inside and away from windows. She said the normally bustling campus has been “deadly quiet” all day, save for the hum of low-flying helicopters. “Unreal” was how Megan Ramette, a 21-year-old sociology student at the school described the day. “There’s still a strong community reaching out to one another like there was during the marathon,” she said. “We’re all just really shocked. It’s just been a bad week.”

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The request to stay indoors made the public spaces at Boston College seem “really creepy, really desolate,” said Alison Ricciato, a 20-year-old studying international relations at the school. Usually jammed with people walking to class or hanging out, the only action Friday was when police escorted groups of students to a dining hall. Before it reopened, she said students pooled all the food they had to allow everyone some variety.

For those cooped up inside, the school closings added another turn to an already trying week. Akhila Kolisetty, 24, a first-year student at Harvard Law School, says she hasn’t been outside since officials told students to remain indoors this morning.

“People are definitely scared just because the other person is on the loose. Monday’s event was really horrible but there was a sense of there wasn’t an ongoing threat,” Kolisetty says, adding that campus mostly returned to normal the next day. “Now, people are putting everything on hold.”

Nearly 50 miles south of Boston, the manhunt led to the evacuation of The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. At 8:46 a.m., after learning that bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is an enrolled sophomore who lived in student housing, the school ordered every one of the 9,700 students, 375 faculty and 1,200 staff on campus to leave immediately, said school spokesman Rob Lamontagne. He said there is only one route in and out of campus and there was a “sea of cars going the other way” when he arrived shortly after the evacuation began. “There’s always some stragglers, so we had folks going door-to-door to make sure everyone had left,” he added. Those students who did not have their own means of transportation were shuttled to Dartmouth High School to wait it out. Lamontagne said the campus is part of the ongoing FBI investigation.

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In Boston, area schools relied on a system of notification mechanisms implemented in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings to cancel classes and keep students and faculty informed. “Every college in the U.S. has a fairly robust emergency notification system at this point,” said S. Daniel Carter, a campus safety policy expert, who directs the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative. “That was one of the major takeaways and lessons learned from shootings at Virginia Tech.”

MIT began alerting its campus community of the shooting at 10:48 p.m. on Thursday. The first alert, posted on its emergency website and sent out via text message, email and on social media, informed students and staff that gunshots were reported near the Stata Center, which houses the school’s prestigious Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

School officials encouraged people to stay away from the area, but it wasn’t until 12:37 a.m. that the official alert to “REMAIN INDOORS until further notice” was pushed out. Just before 2 a.m., the campus was informed that the shooting suspect was no longer on campus and told, “it is now safe to resume normal activities.” They reversed course shortly after 6 a.m., canceling classes and asking students to stay in their residences and employees to stay home. Other area colleges and universities followed similar protocol for alerting students of their closings.

Both BU and Harvard informed students after 11 p.m. of the shooting on MIT’s campus and urged them to stay out of the area. Tufts alerted students just before 7 a.m. that both the Boston and Medford/Somerville campuses were closed and encouraged students to stay indoors. University spokeswoman Kim Thurler says the school is providing a shuttle service for students between residence halls and the dining centers so they can be confident they will get there safely. “We’ve been in frequent communication with students, faculty and staff,” Thurler said. “I think it is more a question of people feeling saddened that being frightened.”

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