Discarded “treasure chests” used in an on-campus scavenger hunt at Ottawa University attracted an unintended participant Thursday morning — the Topeka Police Department Bomb Squad.
In the end, the “suspicious-looking” packages turned out to be nothing more than props from a reported birthday party. But the uncertainty surrounding the boxes prompted the evacuation of some students and staff early Thursday as a precautionary measure until authorities could determine the contents of the packages.
The incident also raised the eyebrows of a few residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the OU campus, 1001 S. Cedar St., who were unaware anything was amiss until Ottawa police and other first responders started arriving on the scene and cordoning off routes into the campus.
A custodian noticed a package about 5:20 a.m. Thursday at Tauy Jones Hall on the OU campus, Dennis Butler, Ottawa police chief, said. The worker said the package was out of place and had not been there previously. The custodian backed away from the package and notified authorities, Butler said. Other custodial staff apparently had reported seeing similar boxes Wednesday near OU’s Mowbray Student Union.
Law enforcement officials set up a perimeter around the campus early Thursday, where students and faculty had been evacuated and classes were canceled until the all clear was given later that morning.
Ottawa Mayor Blake Jorgensen, who lives across the street from OU’s campus, said he was notified about an incident at the university early Thursday morning by Richard Neinstedt, city manager. At the time, however, details were unclear and the mayor said he didn’t realize the incident was so close to his home.
Other residents expressed similar surprise to learn a suspicious package had been discovered on the campus.
Capt. Adam Weingartner, with the Ottawa Police Department, said Friday that although the police department set up a perimeter that sealed off the campus, after consultation with the bomb squad, it determined it was unnecessary to evacuate the surrounding neighborhoods and that those residents were in no danger.
“If we thought we would have needed to bump out the perimeter to a larger geographic area, we would have gone door-to-door in the [surrounding] neighborhoods and evacuated those residents,” Weingartner said. “We also would have posted information through our social media [outlets].
About 7 a.m., university administrators notified OU students and staff via the university’s electronic E2 Campus Electronic Alert notification system and by email about the incident, Weingartner said. The appropriate buildings were evacuated, the police captain said, and police notified the Ottawa school district and local residents through a “reverse” 911 alert call to landlines.
The package — described as a treasure chest (an oversized cardboard box with a shaped lid) — appeared to be sealed with duct tape, Police Chief Butler said.
Interviews conducted by the Ottawa Police Department determined the packages posed no threat and there was no criminal intent, Weingartner said. Ottawa police, bomb squad members and OU staff examined the packages, which later were collected by Ottawa police for safekeeping.
Paula Paine, the university’s manager of public relations and publications, confirmed Friday morning that the packages were part of a scavenger hunt conducted by some students. Paine said she had heard reports that it might have been associated with a birthday celebration, but said she could not confirm those reports.
“There was no malicious or criminal intent” on the part of the students, Paine said.
The university did not identify the students involved in the scavenger hunt, and Paine said she was not aware of any disciplinary action that might result from the incident.
“This was an innocent student activity,” she said.
But Paine said the incident might prompt some “student training” to help the university avoid a reoccurrence in the future.
Jenna Lunger, a junior at OU and a member of The Campus student newspaper staff, said Thursday morning that similar cardboard boxes were used Wednesday for a scavenger hunt to celebrate a fellow student’s birthday. Lunger also is the daughter of Undersheriff Steve Lunger.
About 150 students were evacuated shortly after 7 a.m. Thursday from Bennett Hall, because the student residence hall was within 300 feet of where the suspicious package was found, Paine said.
Bomb squad representatives arrived Thursday morning, and after interviews determined the packages posed no specific threat and there was no criminal intent, a K-9 unit with the Kansas Highway Patrol completed a search of Tauy Jones and Mowbray Student Union.
The campus was given the “all clear” at 10 a.m., and students were allowed back on the campus, Weingartner said. Classes resumed as scheduled Thursday afternoon.
“We are extremely grateful that this incident did not prove to be a credible threat to our campus and that all of our students and staff are safe,” Dennis Tyner, OU vice president and provost, said in a statement released Thursday afternoon by the university. “Their safety is our No. 1 priority, which is why we implemented the protocol that was followed for responding to this incident.
“We are pleased that the protocol was effective and proud of our emergency response team and the way they handled the situation,” Tyner said. “In addition, we want to thank local and area law enforcement for their rapid and professional response to this situation.”
Agencies responding to the incident included the Ottawa Police Department, Ottawa Fire Department, Franklin County Emergency Medical Services, Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, Franklin County Emergency Management Office, Topeka Police Department Bomb Squad, Kansas Highway Patrol, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“In an incident such as this, our first priority is the safety and security of area residents, including students and staff at Ottawa University,” Weingartner said. “The notification systems in place for such an event worked and worked well. I’d like to thank all of the agencies who responded to assist. Working together, this incident was resolved quickly and safely.”
Jeanny Sharp, Herald editor and publisher, contributed to this report.