The entire community was shocked and a little shaken when on Wednesday, Feb. 5, the campus was put into lockdown. Simultaneously, the automated alert system broadcasted the presence of a man with an axe on Howard Street and the necessity for classrooms and dorms to be barricaded. In the tense thirty minutes that followed, the narrative began to twist, thankfully away from the campus being under siege. Instead, the events which placed Wheaton on the defensive became much stranger, largely the object of a miscommunication. To fully understand what unfolded that afternoon, I sat down with both the student in possession of the axe, Hashem El-Sharif, and Public Safety Chief, Robert Winsor, to get the details.
The first domino to fall involved a report that was provided to the local Norton Police Dispatch. According to Chief Winsor, “We received a call from Norton Dispatch. Norton Police Dispatch had said that someone had entered their lobby and said that they saw a white male running across Route 123 onto Howard Street toward the campus. That was the only report that we had, and that was the only information that we had.” Springing into action based upon this call, the now infamous automated call was sent out, and the campus was placed under lockdown. This report provided to Norton Dispatch, while true in the most technical sense, did not accurately depict what had happened.
A man did, in fact, run in that direction with an axe, but he wasn’t headed onto Wheaton’s campus. Hashem El-Sharif was on his way back to the 5T theme house with his newly purchased ACE Hardware axe. There was no malice in that purchase; instead, El-Sharif was in the midst of destroying a piece of old furniture that had been taking up space in his shared home. El-Sharif told me, “[my roommates and I] were talking about this for weeks—this old dresser in our backyard. It’s moldy, it’s been there for months. It rained on it, it snowed on it, we just wanted to get rid of it. So, we talked to our landlord and our landlord’s assistant and we discussed ways to get rid of this. One option was to get the disposal people to carry it out, but this a bit pricey. It was a very expensive option. So, our landlord’s assistant advised us for a cheaper option, a less time-consuming option, which was to get an axe, chop it up, put it in a bag, and dispose of it—and that’s exactly what we all agreed on as a house, collectively.” With only one class that day, El-Sharif had the time to take care of the matter, unknowingly locking down Wheaton in the process.
Meanwhile, Chief Winsor was taking measures to ensure the safety of everyone on campus, not yet realizing what had actually transpired. Public Safety and Norton Police combined efforts, beginning the search for the threat. At this point, controlling the situation and protecting the community from harm was of the utmost importance to the officers responding to the Norton Dispatch report. These weren’t the only forces notified of the situation, however. Chief Winsor revealed to me that “during those thirty minutes, we also had the Massachusetts state police [make] contact with us, knowing that we had entered a lockdown situation. I know that the FBI had made contact with Norton Police, and the area departments were prepared to respond in order to ensure the safety of the campus.” This truly was an all-hands affair, which should hopefully put some members of the community at ease.
During this time, though, the officers responding absolutely were not at ease—at least not until El-Sharif received the automated message himself upon finishing with the dresser, roughly ten minutes after the lockdown was put into effect. His first reaction was one of surprise, but it quickly shifted. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is me, that’s crazy.’ Then when I saw the lockdown, the barricading, I’m like, ‘I must intervene, this is a huge misunderstanding.’’ At this point, El-Sharif took the initiative to call Public Safety and explain the situation. After getting on the line, officers were sent to the 5T house to investigate.
After seeing the axe, the destroyed dresser, and having a conversation with El-Sharif, the matter was resolved, and the lockdown was lifted. Taking this in stride, El-Sharif told me that, “the whole thing [was] just a misunderstanding based on a false assumption. But, you know, I understand where the person reporting may have been coming from. It’s a sensitive time we’re living in, people are paranoid about a number of issues, and I understand that. But I’m so glad I was able to call them and diffuse this whole situation.” That same feeling of thankfulness was felt by Public Safety. When El-Sharif made his call, Public Safety was still in pursuit of an armed suspect and getting more reports.
According to Chief Winsor, “we had received another call from a person who had seen him running across the road. And while we were talking to that person, the actual person that was running across the road with the axe made contact with us. I first want to thank that person, that student, for calling us, and recognizing that this was a result of him—this was all kind of a result of him purchasing an axe.” It is important to remember, as El-Sharif was assured of by the officers who came to 5T, purchasing the axe was merely the catalyst for the first report, not a crime itself. The axe was purchased legally and never brandished or used in a threatening manner—nor was it even brought onto campus—which removes any notion that El-Sharif acted incorrectly or with bad intent.
This entire situation was a result of a wild misunderstanding, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t important takeaways from the events that transpired Wednesday afternoon. When viewing the situation through the lens of Hashem El-Sharif, the community should see this man for who he truly is and understand that he took the correct actions at every turn that afternoon. It is also important to remember he is more than just the “guy with an axe.” When I asked El-Sharif to introduce himself to the community in light of these events, he told me the following. “I’m happy to say that I’ve been here for three years, I’m a junior here at Wheaton, I’m a political science major. I really do enjoy the sense of community here at Wheaton. I never felt anyone was aggressive toward me, showed any hatred or ill intent toward me. I love Wheaton, I’m not too big on extracurriculars—I used to play soccer—but right now I’m focused on my academics and getting my political science degree. I’ve made a lot of great friends here over the past three years and I’m more than happy to meet anyone else in the future—I just don’t want anyone to get a bad idea of me.”
At the same time, it is truly worth highlighting the heroics and quick response by Public Safety and associated departments which prioritized the safety of the Wheaton community above all else. While is some indignation circulating, calling the lockdown ridiculous in light of what truly transpired, it is essential to remember the original Norton Dispatch call, and equally imperative to remember the adage of “better safe than sorry.” Living on a campus where every potential situation is taken seriously and swiftly, decisively handled personally allows me to breathe a little easier even in light of the nation’s epidemic of mass violence. Chief Winsor plans to continue strengthening Wheaton’s commitment to security, telling me the following. “We are looking at doing more training with ALICE. ALICE [stands for] alert, lockdown, inform, counter, and evacuate. I have started with faculty and staff this Friday, and I’m working with Student Affairs to have students training dedicated to students … so I think that the important thing is that I’d encourage anyone to come to trainings that are offered, the ALICE trainings.”
Similarly, Chief Winsor stressed the importance of “making sure that your information is correct for the emergency notification, so that you’re getting the correct information as it is coming out. You know, going into Inside Wheaton and making sure that all your information is correct. There’s an actual, preferred on-campus incident alert number… make sure that information is correct. We’re going to be doing some tests; we’ll get the notification out that the test is coming up to make sure that your information is right, with instructions on how to do so.” It is certainly relieving to see such a priority placed upon security so that in the case of another lockdown, misunderstanding or not, everyone remains safe.
Thank you to Hashem El-Sharif and Chief Robert Winsor for their time.