It’s every student’s worst nightmare: a suspicious character with a weapon in a crowded academic building. The shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech is approaching its second anniversary, but it is still fresh in the minds of college students all across the country. Although nothing serious came out of Wednesday’s incident of suspicious activity in the College of Arts and Sciences, the event showed that the Boston University Emergency Alert System fails to serve its crucial purpose of keeping students out of harm’s way in times of crisis.
By all accounts, the Boston University Police Department performed admirably. The response was quick, organized and did not cause panic. It was apparent that they had practiced this scenario before and were well prepared.
Students, however, were nowhere near as prepared for the incident, partially because they remained borderline ignorant of its gravity. Instead of clearly communicating that BUPD had a serious situation on its hands, students were only told that they should avoid the CAS building because of ‘police activity.’
If this was BUPD’s way of communicating that a credible source alerted the department that a stranger was carrying an ammunition clip, then it is being far too vague. Understandably, letting students know via phone call, text message or email that someone might be in possession of a gun inside CAS could cause unwarranted panic. But at the very least, students could have been warned of a suspicious character in the area in order to make a more informed decision. For students that were heading to their classes in CAS, how were they supposed to know if the situation was serious enough to warrant skipping class? Would their professors penalize them for missing class? This was never made clear in any of the alert messages.
Even more disconcerting were the unique circumstances of students who were already in class at CAS when they got the emergency alert. According to the BU Emergency Alert System website, students are told, ‘do not deviate from the instructions provided.’ Yet this is exactly what hundreds of students and professors in CAS did. Few students, if any, left their classrooms, and most classes were not cancelled. The vagueness of the alert may have had other consequences. Since students were not directed to stay in one place, they could have wandered into the halls, putting them in danger. BUPD should have made it obvious exactly what students and faculty were expected to do.
Professors need to be kept up to date on these kinds of situations. Since cell phones are supposedly not allowed in the classroom and some classrooms don’t have cell service, there is a chance that students and faculty will be kept in the dark about an emergency, putting them at risk. There should be some kind of public announcement system or other method of keeping professors up to date about urgent situations.
In hindsight, the decision not to evacuate CAS worked out well because the suspect caused no disturbance. BUPD has a valid point about an evacuation making it more difficult to catch a suspect, but the priority should be to ensure student safety.
The BU Emergency Alert System is not the only system that needs reform. BU needs to have more options in these scenarios than either evacuation or no evacuation. If there really was a gunman in the hallways, evacuation would quite possibly only put students in harm’s way. BU should have a lockdown plan in place, as many high schools and colleges all over the country do. Sometimes the safest thing to do is simply stay put, but this cannot be expressed clearly with the current system.
In the future, if there is ever an area that BUPD determines to be too dangerous for students to be near, then students have to understand what BU Alerts mean. Wednesday’s messages were simply not informative enough. Students should not have to decide whether or not they are compromising their safety by remaining in a classroom, despite a text message telling them that everyone needs to stay away from that area.
Once BU reforms the Alert system, the university must be sure that students understand exactly how it works and how to interpret any messages they receive from the system. BU already requires that students confirm their telephone numbers online with the BU Emergency Alert System, but the university should also require students to demonstrate that they have knowledge of the system. This way, everyone will be on the same page and will know what do when unexpected emergencies occur.
What transpired on Wednesday must not happen again. BUPD response may have been ‘adequate,’ but the BU Alert system itself has proven to be a complete failure. The next time there is a suspected weapon in a BU building, the outcome may not be as fortuitous. Communication between the university and students during a crisis needs to be explicit in it’s meaning, or else the safety of students and faculty is jeopardized.