University safety procedures leave students in the dark
The day following the Virginia Tech shootings, a message from President Cohon was sent out via e-mail outlining procedures for seeking psychological counseling and reassuring us that we had security on campus. The university wished to provide reassurance that “it couldn’t happen here.”
Two days later, on April 19, Carnegie Mellon endured its own potential nightmare. A graduate student was apprehended by police with a three-foot-tall, torpedo-shaped metal cylinder in the backseat of his car behind Smith Hall. Police determined that the object was benign — though they would not, or could not, reveal what it was used for. Not exactly a reassuring scenario.
The entire incident lasted less than two hours, and most students were blissfully unaware of it. Officials sent out no e-mail warning, issued no official evacuation or lockdown order. Even now, after 10 days, Official Communications has yet to explain the incident or reassure the campus. No press release has been posted on our own university website, though Media Relations spent hours in the wake of the incident talking to local TV and newspaper reporters, presumably to ensure they had the latest information. University Police literally hung up the phone when asked for information. Despite the horrific events at Virginia Tech and all that we had supposedly “learned” there, Carnegie Mellon made precisely the same potential mistake — cutting off communication to the campus community.
President Cohon’s post-Virginia Tech e-mail was similarly ambiguous. Serving more as a liability waiver than an instructional tool, it put the burden on students to seek help in an effort to return to normalcy. Cohon and the administration should first hold up their end of the deal by ensuring campus saftey through effective communication instead of arbitrarily offering counseling.
That e-mail also linked to an obscure university website that — who knew? — outlined campus safety procedures. This site, ehs.cmu.edu, previously firewalled, was only made accessible in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre. Still, its utility is limited. A student who visits the site can learn how to prepare for heat rash, SARS, or West Nile virus — but not what to do when he sees someone wielding a handgun.
Environmental Health and Safety’s (EH&S) emergency communication consists of AlertNow, a system that enables the department to make 5000 phone calls a minute to alert floor marshals of a campus emergency. This system was not implemented on April 19 — an unforgivable decision in the age of text and instant messaging, PDAs, and podcasts. Furthermore, the system only alerts floor marshals and RAs, enabling those who are already in a building to stay there and offering no instructions to those already outside — exactly what happened at Virginia Tech.
Carnegie Mellon can do better. Days before the Virginia Tech massacre, Princeton University instituted the Connect-ED alert system. It enables campus leaders to send simultaneous alerts to individuals through landline and cellular phones, text messaging, and e-mail in a matter of minutes using contact information provided by each member of the campus community.
While no one could expect such a system to be implemented tomorrow, we have the right to expect basic, essential information to be disseminated promptly through the systems we already have, specifically e-mail and the university website. The university’s actions, or lack thereof, are completely insufficient. Clearly, “it could never happen here” is not a valid excuse; hopefully, no student, let alone 33, will have to die before the university improves its safety measures.