A group of Harvard University students said they were ordered from their dorm suite at gunpoint by campus police officers early Monday after the department received a false emergency call.
In separate interviews Monday, four students described the fear of being roused from their sleep by the sounds of heavily armed officers — several wearing helmets and armed with long guns — banging on doors, and being forced from their university residence on DeWolfe Street around 4 a.m.
Officers searched their rooms, and the students said they were later told by police the department had received a call falsely claiming that two women inside the dorm suite were going to be killed. But the ordeal has left them shaken.
“We were all terrified — they had guns pointed at us,” said student Jarah Cotton. “Everybody was extremely frazzled. No one’s been asleep since.”
Jazmin Dunlap said at one point, three university police officers had their weapons aimed at her just moments after she woke up.
“I personally did not know that the Harvard University Police Department could actually enter our rooms with that much force,” Dunlap said.
The reported hoax call aimed at the Harvard students comes amid a troubling surge of false emergency calls to police reporting active shooters and threats of violence at schools in Massachusetts and across the country.
So-called “swatting” calls — nicknamed for heavily armed teams of police officers — often trigger massive responses from law enforcement agencies, and can also sow feelings of fear and anxiety among people caught in the middle.
The university police department received a call about a potential threat at the Leverett House dorm around 4 a.m., according to a message sent by administrators to residents later Monday. The message included contact information for people to connect with campus resources, but did not include details of the threat or the use of long guns by responding officers.
“The responding team arrived within minutes and was able to quickly clear the scene. HUPD confirms that there is no active or immediate threat to our House community,” the message said.
Through a spokesperson, the university declined to answer questions from The Boston Globe Monday.
The FBI’s Boston office is aware of the reported swatting incident at Harvard and is coordinating with its law enforcement partners, according to Kristen Setera, an agency spokesperson. The FBI estimates there are thousands of such calls each year in the United States, according to Setera.
Dan Linskey, a security consultant and a former superintendent in chief for Boston police, said that speaking generally, departments train officers to respond to a threat by assessing danger and being ready to adapt to changing circumstances quickly. But that tactical response can be abused by callers who report hoax emergencies, he said.
“The problem you have with the swatting calls is people are weaponizing the need to respond that way in a real situation against innocent victims,” Linskey said. “The key is training, training, training — training for the bad day that actually occurs. And training for, ‘Someone’s trying to use us to cause a problem for other people, and we’re not going to be sucked into it.’ "
At Harvard early Monday, student David Madzivanyika said he awoke to the sound of banging on the suite’s doorway, and was going to answer when officers opened the door and came through with long guns.
He recalled raising his hands when an officer yelled orders. " ‘Freeze! Put your hands where I can see them!’ " the officer said, according to Madzivanyika.
“I was just thinking, ‘Please, Lord, not today,’ ” Madzivanyika said. “It’s a scary time for anybody to have a gun pointed at them, especially on a college campus.”
Another student, Alexandra René, said the officers initially didn’t explain why they were in the dorm, and ordered her to put her hands up.
“From what I know about how harmful the police can be, it was in my best interest to listen to them,” René said. “So I did.”
When police entered the suite, Dunlap was still asleep in her room with the door closed. She awoke when police ordered her to open up. She described a frantic effort to put on her glasses, and unlocked her door as quickly as possible.
“They specifically stated that they were going to come into my room if I didn’t open my door,” Dunlap said.
The four students were moved to another suite while officers appeared to search their rooms. After about 20 minutes, they stopped, and some of the officers explained why they responded in force, she said.
The university officers told the students the department had received a call reporting someone was going to kill two women living in their suite, the students said. Police told them they tried calling two of their cellphones before entering their suite.
Madzivanyika remained disturbed by the ordeal, including the hoax caller who appeared to know details about their dorm suite. But the police response didn’t set him at ease.
“Just the fact that that call can be made . . . that’s unsettling. And then the response, too, is also unsettling,” said Madzivanyika. “I appreciate the police trying to do their job that they’re doing. But definitely, more training is required.”
René questioned whether they would have approached it the same way with white students.
“They should not have responded to us in that way,” René said. “Do I think if it had been a group of four white girls, the same thing would have happened? Probably not.”
Living during a time of mass shootings, Cotton said she isn’t sure how the police should have handled the case. She wants officers to be attentive, and if they received a report that someone was going to be killed, they needed to respond.
“So I understand why they did it. But in the moment, it was very frightening,” Cotton said. “I felt like a criminal.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.