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Harvard Police Chief Makes First Public Statement on ‘Swatting’ Attack, Says Caller Claimed to be Student ‘Kicked Out’ of Harvard

The Harvard University Police Department's headquarters is located on Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge.
The Harvard University Police Department's headquarters is located on Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge. By Julian J. Giordano
By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen and Yusuf S. Mian, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard University Police Department Chief Victor A. Clay provided new details on the Monday armed raid by HUPD of an undergraduate suite in response to a false 911 call, writing in a Wednesday statement that the caller claimed to be a Harvard student who was “kicked out.”

The statement comes more than 48 hours after at least five armed HUPD officers raided the Leverett House suite of Harvard College seniors Jarah K. Cotton ’23, Jazmin N. Dunlap ’23, David G. Madzivanyika ’23, and Alexandra C. René ’23.

The students, who are Black, awoke to banging on their door and commands to “open up” at approximately 4:15 a.m. Monday. Officers wielding assault rifles and wearing riot gear identified themselves and entered the suite before ordering the students out of their rooms at gunpoint.

Clay wrote in the Wednesday statement that HUPD received three calls within an hour from a caller who “identified himself as male” and claimed to be a Harvard student who was “kicked out” this semester.

The caller claimed to have taken a woman hostage in the students’ suite and had unsuccessfully attempted to kill her, according to Clay. The caller referenced “a room number that indicated a strong familiarity with Leverett House and how its rooms are commonly referenced by Harvard community members,” Clay wrote.

The caller “indicated that he was armed” in the third call, Clay wrote in the statement, and first threatened to “shoot law enforcement who entered the room” and then to leave the room and “start shooting as he did so.” These phone calls led HUPD to believe there was an “elevated” threat.

HUPD called Cotton and René roughly 30 minutes before the raid, Cotton said in an interview Monday. When officers failed to contact the two students, HUPD “determined that it was necessary to enter the room” to ensure their safety, according to Clay.

The officers then searched the Leverett suite with “negative results for an individual with a firearm or any persons acting in a suspicious manner,” according to HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano.

After the situation was cleared, officers brought the students to a common room and briefed them on the reasons for their response, Clay wrote in the statement. At around 4:41 a.m., residential staff “began to engage with the students directly.”

The false 911 call was an instance of “swatting,” named for the armed SWAT teams that often respond to them. Swatting attacks have been on the rise, particularly in schools, across the country in recent weeks. NBC10 Boston reported that 28 Massachusetts communities received swatting calls the day following a March 27 school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee.

In a Wednesday statement, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana wrote that other Boston-area universities had been targeted by similar swatting calls in the past week. MIT received a bomb threat at around 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, according to Boston 25 News, prompting the evacuation of Simmons Hall, an undergraduate dormitory.

Swatting is a crime under Massachusetts state and federal law. Clay confirmed that an investigation into the false report is ongoing and that HUPD is working with the FBI on the matter.

In the aftermath of the raid, students and alumni expressed outrage over the raid and concern for the safety and well-being of the students, and six upperclassman houses issued statements to residents as of Wednesday evening. Harvard affiliates and the public criticized the delay of a University-wide response.

“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 a Monday statement to The Crimson. “We felt our lives were in danger. We are traumatized.”

HUPD Chief Victor A. Clay
HUPD Chief Victor A. Clay By Courtesy of Curtis Dahl

Clay’s statement on Wednesday addressed concerns for the students but did not include an apology.

“​​We acknowledge that the presence of police officers in the early morning hours in one of the College’s residential Houses can, and in this case did, raise fears and anxiety,” Clay wrote. “Entering a residential House is not something that HUPD does without cause or takes lightly.”

Cambridge Police Department spokesperson Jeremy C. Warnick wrote in an email Tuesday that CPD was not informed of the raid when it occurred.

“We actually didn’t respond to that reported incident and will support HUPD and/or the FBI if/as assistance is needed,” Warnick wrote. “To clarify, we didn’t respond as the Cambridge Police were not notified.”

Clay’s email did not explain why the department did not send out a public alert to students despite the possibility of an active shooter.

“Clearly, they believed there was an active shooter on Harvard’s campus,” Cotton said in an interview Monday. “If there was a shooter in Dunster House, I would like to know in Leverett.”

“They clearly, again, thought it was a serious threat because they had assault rifles pointed at our faces,” Cotton added. “I feel like if it warrants that kind of response, it most definitely warrants an email.”

Catalano declined to comment Monday on the lack of an alert to campus.

“The steps taken by HUPD are aligned with law enforcement protocols, which HUPD officers are trained on,” Clay wrote Wednesday. “The steps we take are based on an assessment of the level of potential threat to members of our community with regards to a potential public safety situation.”

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

—Staff writer Yusuf S. Mian can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @yusuf_mian2.

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