IOWA CITY — After evacuating about 500 University of Iowa students from Slater Residence Hall late Sunday — the eve of the first day of the fall semester — authorities on Monday said they found no threat of explosion or toxic gas.
Still, the discovery of unknown chemicals in a third-floor room in Slater that prompted the evacuation about 9 p.m. Sunday remains under investigation. UI officials would not confirm whether drug use was behind the evacuation, but the Office of the Dean of Students is looking into whether a UI student who was involved violated any university policies, said UI spokesman Tom Moore.
UI police were called to the west side residence hall about 7:45 p.m. Sunday regarding a disoriented resident in the lobby, Moore said in a statement. The resident, who has not been identified, was taken to the UI Hospitals and Clinics about 8:20 p.m., and Slater staff members told police that they had seen chemicals and other suspicious items in the resident’s room.
The Johnson County Drug Task Force and the Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement obtained a search warrant to enter the room, and at 9 p.m. UI staff decided to evacuate the entire building so investigators could assess and remove chemicals that were found, Moore said.
UI Chief of Police Chuck Green said in a statement that following a search and assessment of the room, investigators found no threat of explosion or toxic gas — the two primary concerns.
“Student safety is our top priority,” he said. “And we’re grateful for Slater residents’ cooperation.”
Students told The Gazette that they initially were told the evacuation was a fire drill, but they began to suspect more after spending about an hour outside. Eventually, the evacuated students said they were sent to lobbies in other nearby residence halls — Rienow, Quadrangle, and Hillcrest — and they were offered board games, movies, and snacks to pass the time.
Some evacuated students were told they might not be allowed to return to their rooms all night.
“Half of us didn’t have shoes on, and we were all in our pajamas,” said UI freshman Danielle Loague, 18. “They told us we might have to tell our professors tomorrow why we were in our pajamas and not prepared.”
Loague, who lives on the fourth floor of Slater, spent the evacuated hours in the Rienow lobby playing “Mafia” — a board game — with other evacuees. It wasn’t the ideal start to her college experience, Loague said.
“It was totally not what I was expecting,” she said. “It’s a little concerning.”
Loague said students speculated the evacuation was the result of illegal drug use, and she saw investigators entering the residence hall wearing masks.
“That was shocking,” she said. “I didn’t grow up around that stuff.”
UI officials began letting students return to Slater about 11:20 p.m., but some students reported being let back in later — one person reported 1 a.m. Authorities and hall staff kept the third floor clear until the initial investigation was complete, according to Moore.
The one student who was affected was continuing to recover at the UI Hospitals on Monday.
Some students, including Loague, expressed frustration with the lack of information that initially was released. Many students said their parents were calling, and they didn’t have anything to tell them Monday morning.
“No one has given us a straight answer,” said UI freshman and Slater resident Zoie Schares, 18. “I had three phone calls when I woke up.”
Although students reported hearing that drug use was behind the evacuation, UI officials did not confirm that Monday.
But Tom Rocklin, UI vice president for student life, did send an email to the student body Monday reminding them of the importance of getting help for fellow students in medical distress — even if drugs or alcohol are involved and they’re afraid of getting in trouble.
“The best thing is to be smart and stay safe and to help your fellow students stay safe,” Rocklin said in the message. “If you ever do need to call for help, don’t let concerns about university punishment get in the way. Hawkeyes look out for Hawkeyes.”
Rocklin cited the UI “Responsible Action Protocol” — referred to as the “good Samaritan policy.” It states that the university won’t punish a student for alcohol or drug use if authorities find out about the violations because the student called 911 or notified residence hall staff to help a fellow student.
The policy is set up to encourage students to seek help when appropriate, although there are some exceptions, Rocklin said.
“Mainly you can’t abuse the policy, and you can’t supply the alcohol or drugs,” he said.
The university also will not pursue disciplinary violations against a student or witness for improper use of alcohol or drugs if the student has been the victim of sexual misconduct and is making a “good faith report,” according to Rocklin.
Rehabs.com, a website focused on treatment centers for substance abuse, recently conducted an in-depth analysis of the UI’s drug and alcohol arrests based on its ranking last year as the Princeton Review’s top party school. The investigation, which analyzed UI police statistics, found that Slater Residence Hall had the second highest rate of drug- and alcohol-related charges on campus in 2013.
Quadrangle ranked No. 1 with 5.86 charges per 100 students, and Slater came in second with 5.61 charges per 100 students, according to Rehabs.com.
UI freshman Kathryn Tvedte, 18, lives on the second floor of Slater and found her peers evacuated when she arrived home about 9:50 p.m. Sunday. She spent the next few hours talking with friends about what could have prompted the scare and watching the movie “John Tucker Must Die” in the lobby of a nearby dorm.
“It was a kind of a bad way to start off the school year,” Tvedte said. “But I also think it brought us closer.”