Montana State University Billings was placed under lockdown for about 30 minutes Wednesday after a report that people were walking across campus carrying guns.
The suspects turned out to be Reserve Officers’ Training Corps students taking dummy guns to their vehicles, said Dan Carter, director of university relations.
The university’s ROTC program recently restarted after a decade gap, and cadets had just begun learning how to handle the fake guns.
The dummy weapons are models that look and feel like real weapons but do not fire and are used for training.
Investigators from the Billings Police Department and the university police connected the weapons report to the ROTC cadets when a student identified himself as a possible source of the scare.
“A student came forward who was a ROTC cadet and said, ‘Me and a friend were carrying our dummy weapons across campus to our cars. That might have something to do with it,’ ” Carter said.
Police interviewed the student and his story checked out.
“We took the report really seriously,” Carter said. “Students were very cooperative and understanding.”
The emergency lockdown protocol was implemented at 12:25 p.m. after university officials decided the report was credible.
It was the first time MSUB used the system, which sent out an alert by e-mail, text message, over loudspeakers and digital clocks, and on a closed-circuit television system that displays campus news. Students, teachers and faculty were notified, along with nearby residents and a day care facility.
“We just shut the doors and stayed away from the windows and turned the lights off,” said Darin MacCatherine, who was in a history class in the liberal-arts building.
MacCatherine said one of his fellow students noticed the alert flashing across a digital clock outside their classroom. It said an armed intruder had been reported on campus and urged people to stay in place and away from windows.
“The reaction of people was kind of odd throughout. Some people were joking kind of nervously and other people were crying,” said Kyle Buffington, who was in a classroom in the education building.
Buffington’s 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter were in the William R. Lowe Child Care Enrichment Center on Normal Avenue.
“I tried to watch through the window the whole time because I had a good view of the preschool,” he said.
More than 3,600 students attend classes on MSUB’s campus, and 20 of them participate in a renewed ROTC program that has only existed for a semester.
Lt. Col. Jim West, commander for Army ROTC at Montana State University campuses in Billings and Bozeman, said they were in the process of teaching the new cadets “standard operating procedure” for handling the weapons.
“We literally have just introduced this particular training aid down there in the last two weeks,” West said.
Ordinarily, cadets are supposed to notify campus police if they plan on transporting a weapon on school grounds. They are also required to carry even dummy weapons in a locked case, West said, because they can be mistaken for the real thing.
Officers from the city worked with campus police to investigate the reported threat, and the lockdown was lifted at 12:57 p.m.
“Pre-Columbine, in a situation like this you would have to wait for a SWAT team, but now what you have is the first people on the scene mitigate the problem,” said Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said. “Today, that training paid off and the officers performed very well.”