A special edition of The Daily Nebraskan’s news podcast for the endowment magazine, It Won’t Happen Here: An In-Depth Look at Safety on Campus.
John Grinvalds: Hello, and welcome to a special installment of The Daily Nebraskan podcast. In this series, we will highlight stories in The Daily Nebraskan’s special edition magazine titled “It Won’t Happen Here: An In-Depth Look At Safety On Campus.” The Magazine analyzes several facets of UNL safety, from road safety to protocol in the event of an active-shooter situation. Today, we will focus on Libby Seline’s article about how UNL’s campus almost became the site of a mass shooting in 1992. I’m John Grinvalds, an assistant news editor, and I’m joined by Libby Seline. So Libby, let’s talk about this story. So, there was an almost shooting in 1992?
Libby Seline: Yeah, John. It’s actually quite interesting. Basically in October 1992, a graduate student named Arthur McElroy came to his actuarial science class with a gun. He began to jerk the gun as if he was about to fire at his classmates. They don’t believe he was looking for anyone specific; it was just a mental breakdown. But the gun had jammed, so most of the students ran out of the classroom. Some students who felt like they couldn’t escape stayed in the back of the classroom and guarded themselves with desks. But the gun was still jammed, so know one was hurt. Arthur McElroy walked out of the building and went to his home in a town nearby, where he was later arrest. So it was a very non-eventful situation but still scary to stay the least.
J: How did people on campus react to that situation?
L: It’s actually quite interesting because of the fact that immediately afterward, no one was really panicked. I talked to one of the former DN reporters who covered it, which was kind of fun to talk to someone who used to have my job. He ran to the scene, but it just seemed like no one was panicking. Some people were crying. But overall, it seemed like no one understand the threat to safety that occurred in that moment. A day later, a sociology professor tried to break it down to his students, but he didn’t even hear about it until he watched the news that night. Students didn’t really know about the situation. It wasn’t like hot gossip or widely spread news. A lot of people I talked to kind of blamed it on, “Oh like social media today, if something like this were to happen, you’d find out about it in seconds or in minutes.” But that just was not a thing. And there were a lot of big incidents that year. Like there was a student here who was kidnapped, and she was unfortunately murdered. They were looking for her body for months, so a lot of students knew about that incident. They were preoccupied with that. It was a big year, a really scary year. In terms of this attempted shooting, because nothing happened, it was just not that big of a deal.”
J: What was like the administrative response to it?
L: Yeah, it was really comforting to know that I talked to the former vice chancellor of student affairs, James Griesen, and he said like immediately, one of his first thoughts was to get the students to a different classroom. So that was one of the first things he did. But also, he was very open about the situation. They distributed letters and like pamphlets, letting the students know this is what happened and this is the safety protocol that we have. I also read a study about the [almost] shooting. The study was conducted by, they’re now a retired Peru State professor of criminal justice, and a current research scientist at the … University of Michigan Medical School. But yeah, they conducted a study evaluating the social responses, and they said in their study that there were about 36 … telephone polls that were kind of installed around campus.that were going to be like safety, precautionary … for people to go to in crisis situations. And that was installed within 10 days of the shooting, which is quite a quick turnaround. And on campus, too, students volunteered to walk each other around campus. I guess it was a scary year in general, so it couldn’t be attributed to just the attempted shooting. At the same time, it was nice to read about that and be like, okay, it’s really cool to see people stepping up after the situation and seeing the community come together. And even months after … the attempted shooting, the police said they kind of changed the way they patrolled campus, and they also installed gun lockers for students, which I believe is another story featured … for our [special edition magazine].
J: So what happened to McElroy? Like this is a really fascinating case and situation where he walks in to try to commit a mass murder and his gun fails. And then he just kind of leaves. What happened after he left?
L: Yeah, it’s quite fascinating. And keep in mind … this is almost seven years before Columbine. So this would’ve been a huge deal. Basically, yeah, his gun jammed. When they came back to his house, they found 81 rounds of ammunition in his car and also bloodstained clothing. That was in an old article by The Daily Nebraskan. He was held at the Lancaster County Jail on a $500,000 bail … he was later transferred to the Lincoln Regional Center. And a doctor at the Lincoln Regional Center said that McElroy suffered from paranoid delusion disorder, which essentially made him have a really unrealistic view of the world. One of the former police officers that I talked to, his name is Bill Manning. Bill Manning was telling me about how he has still no idea why McElroy did this. Like there’s not exactly like a motive for going after one specific person; it was probably just a mental breakdown. And he told me about the classmates and they neighbors. They all thought he was just kind of odd. Manning was telling me he could be argumentative in class, which was an actuarial science class, and [Manning] was like, “How does that work?” And frankly, I have the same question. I don’t know how you could be argumentative in an actuarial science class. He was just kind of an odd guy, kept to himself. But police had no complaints about him; no one was like, “Hey, you might want to keep an eye on this guy.” It was completely out of the blue. There was nothing the police could’ve done to try to prevent this situation directly.
J: So why do you think that this story is important now? Why should students know about this almost shooting in 1992?
L: Yeah, I think it’s just, as I was researching this story or before I was assigned this story, I had no idea that this was a thing. And the more I learned about it, I was just like, “This happened at UNL. This is something that could’ve been close to home. This could have changed the world.” There could’ve been a completely different story to tell. And even though the building where this almost occurred, which was Ferguson Hall, was torn down, so there’s barely any trace of it. All the people that I talked to were like, “Every time I hear about a shooting, or I hear about a school shooting specifically, I think about this situation and what could’ve happened.” The student who was in the classroom who I talked to, he said, “I could have a completely different story to tell.” One of the days I talked to him was Valentine's Day. That night, he went home to his wife and his kids, and something like that could’ve been taken away, it wouldn’t happen, it wouldn’t exist. Like the title of the magazine says, you wouldn’t think it would happen here. You never would. But it’s important to realize that these things could happen, and I think the point of this magazine is really taking a look at UNL safety and what UNL has done to say, “We’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen here.” But it’s important to have a personal story, to put it into perspective. It could’ve happened here. There could’ve been a different story to tell, and it could’ve changed so many people’s lives.
J: Well, that’s all I have for you. Are there any other things you’d like to add that we may have missed?
L: I think that kind of wraps everything up. I mean, be sure to read the full story. There are probably some details I left out. Yeah, check it out. But it was a long, lovely process to write this story. It was a lot of fun and also just very eye opening as well
J: Thank you for tuning in to today’s special edition podcast. Stay tuned for more of these special edition podcasts and pick up a copy of the magazine to learn more about safety at UNL. Stay informed and stay safe.