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Four Harvard Students Held at Gunpoint by Campus Police in ‘Swatting’ Attack

At least five armed Harvard University Police Department officers raided a suite in Leverett House, one of Harvard College's residential houses.
At least five armed Harvard University Police Department officers raided a suite in Leverett House, one of Harvard College's residential houses. By Julian J. Giordano
By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen, J. Sellers Hill, and Nia L. Orakwue, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: April 4, 2023, at 6:01 p.m.

At least five armed Harvard University Police Department officers raided an undergraduate suite in Leverett House in response to a false 911 call about an armed individual in the suite early Monday morning.

The four Harvard College seniors in the suite, who are Black, awoke to the sound of banging on their door. Moments later, HUPD officers ordered them into the hallway at gunpoint.

HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano said in an interview that Harvard University Police were dispatched to the building after a report “threatening violence against occupants.” The officers searched the Leverett House suite with “negative results for an individual with a firearm or any persons acting in a suspicious manner,” Catalano said.

At the time of the raid, seniors Jarah K. Cotton ’23, Jazmin N. Dunlap ’23, David G. Madzivanyika ’23, and Alexandra C. René ’23 were in the suite, according to Cotton, who said she was woken around 4 a.m. by the sound of banging and commands to “open up.”

The bangs were so loud that Birukti Tsige ’23, who was asleep in the suite across the hall from where the raid occurred, said she initially thought “the knocks are coming from our side.”

Cotton said when she peered out of her room, she saw an HUPD officer in riot gear holding an assault rifle had already entered their suite.

According to Cotton, the officers, with their rifles pointed at the students, instructed them to exit their rooms with their hands raised. She said the students were then escorted to a neighboring suite.

“All I can recall having in my mind is ‘I haven’t done anything,’” Cotton said. “I really had no clue why they were raiding our suite.”

“It was a very crazy experience — and terrifying,” she added.

After she and her roommates were led into another suite, Cotton said an officer came to them and explained that a false report had led HUPD to believe there was an active threat in the building.

Catalano confirmed that the students were briefed by officers about the false report.

“We were all extremely scared, particularly because my roommates and I are Black students who have been bombarded our whole lives with stories and images portraying how situations such as this had ended up terribly,” Cotton wrote in an email to The Crimson Monday. “We felt our lives were in danger. We are traumatized.”

Tsige said she grabbed her phone and began recording the situation as officers directed the students from Cotton’s suite into her own, their hands raised. She added that she was concerned because Cotton and her suitemates are Black.

“I was really, really scared, but I feel like that was nothing compared to how the other suite felt,” Tsige said.

According to Cotton, HUPD called her and René roughly 30 minutes before the raid, but they did not answer their phones due to the late hour.

The false report was an apparent example of “swatting” — the act of placing a false emergency call with the intention of harassing a target by provoking a forceful police response.

These hoax calls — named after the armed SWAT teams that typically respond to them — have increasingly targeted schools across the country in recent months. NBC10 Boston reported that 28 Massachusetts communities received swatting calls in the aftermath of a March 27 school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee, including false threats that led to lockdowns and police responses at six high schools.

FBI spokesperson Kristen M. Setera confirmed Tuesday that the FBI is aware of the false police report and is coordinating with HUPD on the matter.

Leverett House Interim Resident Dean John Nowak and Faculty Deans Daniel G. Deschler and Eileen E. Reynolds ’86 emailed students at 10:20 a.m. Monday, briefly describing the raid and reiterating that no immediate threat to House safety existed.

“We all process activities like this morning’s differently,” the deans wrote. “Please check in with yourself and on each other and let us know if you have any concerns for yourself or your fellow community members.”

The email offered several support resources including the Harvard Counseling and Mental Health Services support line. The deans also hosted a gathering Monday evening for students to discuss the raid, which Cotton said she appreciated.

“It at least gave students who had become privy to the situation, or who had heard it, the opportunity to hear what actually happened,” Cotton said.

“As for the people who were involved in the raid specifically, we did have a lot of questions that we tried to pose — a lot of them were not answered,” she added.

Despite being assured of their safety, Tsige said that she and her suitemates were on edge for the remainder of the night, startled by every small noise.

“I was thankfully able to fall asleep, but some of my suitemates weren’t,” Tsige said, adding that she didn’t attend any of her classes for the rest of the day.

Cotton said she was disappointed by the lack of University-wide response or acknowledgment.

“Being accosted in your place of residence warrants a University-wide response, warrants the president’s attention, warrants the dean of students’ attention, warrants an email, at the very least,” Cotton said.

College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo declined to comment on the raid.

“At least tell people what happened, tell people about swatting,” Cotton added. “Students are learning about this via Sidechat and other social media platforms. I don’t think that’s how things should be done.”

—Staff writer Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ryandoannguyen.

—Staff writer J. Sellers Hill can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SellersHill.

—Staff writer Nia L. Orakwue can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @nia_orakwue.

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