At around 10 p.m. on March 17, I was sitting on my bed in Village C East, crying and holding both a bag of ricin and my scared friend, Daniel Milzman. For the next hour, I tried to convince him to stay, to hand the ricin to me and to identify a target, but he left.
After eight months, the case of United States v. Milzman is coming closer to a resolution, and those of us involved can turn our attention to moving past the fear, confusion and anger that hung over campus when the case began. However, this healing requires that everyone involved must be held accountable. While the facts of the criminal investigation are now settled, it is due time that the university response be more thoroughly examined.
I have privately voiced concerns since the incident occurred, as my proximity to the events revealed serious flaws in the systems that responded. Unfortunately, systems rarely change with just one person’s scrutiny. Therefore, I have decided to share my story and challenge our community to prepare and plan so that we might better support our student body in future situations.
The story began that night in March, after he left. I called two of my closest friends to join me in my room, told them about what had just happened and made them promise to stay with me until I did what we knew we had to do.
We decided to call the Counseling and Psychiatric Service on-call line first. I called the CAPS operator and explained that a student had just expressed a desire to kill another with a substance I had just held. The operator instructed me to wait 20 minutes for a counselor to call me back. After 20 minutes of anxious waiting, I called again. “Wait 20 more minutes.”
I spent this time making sure my door was still locked while constantly checking my peephole. Twenty minutes passed again. I called a third time. Twenty minutes passed. I called a fourth time, and again I am told just to wait. Over an hour after my initial report that a student had produced the means to kill another, I received a call from a CAPS counselor.
Our conversation was brief. I described my conversation with Milzman in detail, and the counselor responded: “Well, you’re an RA, right? Do you know anyone you should call to help this student? Whoever you call, have them follow up with me tomorrow or later this week.”
The call ended, and I was left to consider the next steps on my own. Had I not called my two friends to be there with me, it would have been too easy to pretend nothing happened and hide away in bed. The response time of CAPS on-call, as well as the quality of response, was and remains dangerously inadequate, not only to the threat with which they were presented but also to my own obvious imminent trauma.
Soon after, my resident assistant training kicked in and I called the community director on duty, who in turn brought me in to a meeting with the Georgetown University Police Department.
The next day, McCarthy’s sixth floor was evacuated, its residents were put up in hotels and HAZMAT teams swept for a biotoxin. My room in Village C East, where the bag of ricin was thrown around, remained untouched and unsearched. I was not among those put in to temporary housing. At that point, I was too scared to even recognize this failure of the university to ensure the safety of its first responder. It was not until a week later, when my parents requested remediation of my room, that officials offered it to me, stating that it was not originally deemed necessary to check my room for toxins because I would have shown symptoms of exposure within 24 hours.
Some members of the Residential Living team reached out via email, thanking me for my work that night but offering no particular action plan or next steps. Eventually, I broke down in front a friend who happened to work for the Georgetown Voice, and while I refused to give a statement, I knew my name would be revealed. On some level, I wanted it to be, if only so I wouldn’t have to process these feelings alone and in silence.
What followed next was a curious conversation. An assistant dean from Residential Education requested a meeting with me because of my recent name release. The meeting was short, as I explained that I didn’t mean to create a situation where my name would be released but that my emotional state made it obvious. I was told that had I intentionally spoken about the experience, “It would have been a very different conversation.” Here began what felt like a pattern of exploitation, intentionally or not, of my position as an RA to limit to whom I speak.
A day or two later, a reporter from The Washington Post called asking for comment, and I declined based on what seemed like the reasonable advice of one of my supervisors. But a passing comment, used to deflect another question, was itself quoted in a story.
After the piece was released, I received a call from the director of Residential Living within a few hours making sure I was not intentionally speaking to media. This conversation was more overt, referencing how it is a violation of my role as a university employee to speak to anyone about the situation without clearance, if at all. I was told to avoid my entire network of friends, faculty and other support and speak only to either CAPS or my chaplain-in-residence in the future. The rules of confidentiality and my terms of appointment seemed to be bent to keep my own trauma confidential, against my wishes.
CAPS counselors were already overwhelmingly overbooked, and a timely appointment was impossible — not that I really wanted an appointment anyway, after the treatment I had received in my call to the emergency on-call line. That left my only immediate resource to be my chaplain. While my chaplain is an incredible resource, her expertise on biotoxins was limited. Instead, I sought help from the director of the LGBTQ Resource Center, someone whom I trusted and whom I knew to be a part of the university “safety net.”
To my dismay, some employees in Student Affairs had already been informed of my situation, and they were discouraged from making themselves potential subpoena targets by speaking to me about the situation. While it is unclear how overt these instructions were — in part because no employee would disclose those instructions — it is obvious that they were not encouraged to act as my supports. The safety net had been cut open, and I was falling through the hole.
My role as a student leader and my job that makes my attendance at this university affordable had both seemed to worsen my situation. There had to be some silver lining. Two weeks after the incident, my parents came down from New York and joined me in a meeting with the director of residential education, the assistant dean and a representative from Georgetown’s Office of General Counsel. In this meeting, I raised the question of legal protection, as Milzman and I discussed on the night he approached me how I could potentially be portrayed as an accomplice should I come forward, in part a threat to keep me quiet.
I was informed that all employees of the university are granted legal protection should a charge be brought against them in their role as a university employee. I was relieved for a moment, as much of my isolation had been a product of my established role as an employee. However, my comfort was soon dashed. I was informed that because I was not Milzman’s RA — a fact that the university had failed to clarify in its earlier public statements — it was unclear if I was acting in my capacity as an employee at the moment he showed me the ricin, and it is therefore unlikely that I would be granted legal protection from the university. To this day, the only university tool offered to make me feel safer has been a no-contact order.
I have seen the very best of Georgetown University, and the values that Georgetown has given me have changed me forever. But they also demand that I illuminate problems that could traumatize any student in the future. The ambiguity of RA employment terms and rights, the lack of support for trauma victims, the inadequacy of CAPS on call and in person, as well as the fragility of the safety net, are all issues that must be resolved not only to protect our community but to make Georgetown more true to its values.
Thomas Lloyd is a senior in the College.