Mike Roddy (center), electronic security, shows Towson University… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
As a suspected gunman walked across Towson University, officials sent an emergency notification through text alert, email and Twitter to some 25,000 students and faculty, warning them of the man's whereabouts and advising them to "stay in a safe location."
The situation ended peacefully. The "gunman" was a student carrying a theater prop — a university spokeswoman called the incident "much ado about nothing." But until the circumstances were cleared up, the alert had the campus community on edge.
That incident, late last year, has been followed by other instances — most recently, last month at the University of Baltimore — in which university officials have alerted students to danger nearby.
Since 1990, federal law has required colleges and universities to issue timely emergency notifications. And universities have boosted efforts to sound the alarm about dangerous situations as evolving technology such as text, Twitter, Facebook and email has sped the pace of emergency disclosure.
Now, some security experts worry about a "boy who cried wolf" effect on the seriousness with which alerts are received. But university officials and experts say it's not worth the risk to dither during a potentially dangerous situation.
"It's better to be safe than sorry in situations like these," said Ara H. Bagdasarian, the CEO and co-founder of Omnilert, a Leesburg, Va.-based alert system provider that counts several Maryland campuses among its 800-plus clients. "The culture of reporting preventable crime has changed dramatically, and in most cases it's appreciated that the school took those actions."
The original federal requirement was spurred by the case of 19-year-old Lehigh University freshman Jeanne Ann Clery, who was raped and murdered in her residence hall room in 1986 and whose parents discovered afterward that students hadn't been told of dozens of violent crimes on campus.
In 2007, universities were jolted by the shootings at Virginia Tech, in which a gunman killed 32 people before killing himself — the deadliest campus shooting rampage in American history. The U.S. Department of Education found that school officials failed to warn students (even as they stayed in their own offices for safety) and levied a $55,000 fine, which Virginia Tech has appealed.
At Virginia Tech and elsewhere, responses have changed. In December, text and email alerts went out within minutes of reported shots at the campus, warning students to stay put and giving a description of the gunman. A man shot and killed a campus police officer and then killed himself in that incident.
Campus police at the University of Maryland, College Park watched the shooting information quickly pour out on Facebook and Twitter — some inaccurate or based on rumors — and determined that students are most likely to seek information from social media.
"Frankly, it was a tipping point for us," said David Mitchell, the university's police chief and a former Maryland State Police superintendent.
Officials retooled their alert system to include a newly created Twitter account and their Facebook page. Their first tweet alerted students about an off-campus armed robbery. "Suspects are at large. Stay alert," it read, followed by a message 40 minutes later that said the robbers were gone from the area.
"It's better to have it out there," said Mitchell, who also teaches crisis management at the Johns Hopkins University. He said police should quickly disseminate information they have, as rumors will abound.
The result can be heightened awareness — and fear. But students say they would rather be informed than kept in the dark.
Dan Reiner, a 21-year-old Towson senior, said he watched police sprint by his classroom in another incident, involving a suspected bank robber who turned out to be unarmed. "Students and parents would be up in arms if they didn't use alerts for issues like these," he said.
"I can't complain," Towson student Jason Boothe added. "I'd rather be informed in a timely manner than not be informed at all."
Antonio Williams, the police chief at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, came under criticism last fall for not issuing a broad emergency alert for an Oct. 13 shooting and robbery of a hospital patient in a university-owned parking garage. Given identical circumstances today, he said, he'd probably do things differently.
"Would I send a text message out? I probably would. What I have adjusted to is that our community would rather have more information than less information. People want to know," Williams said.
The incident led to one immediate change: The email system was streamlined to get word out to everyone simultaneously, previously an impossibility. The campus is doing the same with digital signboards in its buildings, Williams said.