University of Maryland sophomore Joey Mitchell received a safety alert on Oct. 6 reporting a gunman on the edge of campus. He had already been messaging his friends about the situation for nearly 15 minutes.
Mitchell, like many other students that day, was notified about the emergency by a friend in a sorority before the University of Maryland Police Department issued an official alert through UMD Alerts, their emergency notification system. Students involved in Greek life received an email from the Department of Fraternity and Sorority Life (DFSL) 12 minutes before the UMD Alert was sent.
“Apparently there was something going around in [my friend’s sorority] group chat that there was a shooter on Route 1,” said Mitchell, an English and theater double major. “I was like, ‘what do you mean?’ There must have been a lot of people who didn’t even know, so they weren’t able to actually protect themselves if they needed to.”
The incident later proved to be a false alarm, but it revealed a larger issue within the UMD community: students hear rumors and speculation about safety threats from friends and peers before they receive any official information from the police.
The UMPD’s 2016 Annual Safety and Security Report states that, in the event of an emergency, “authorized senders will instantly notify you using UMD Alerts. UMD Alerts is your personal connection to real-time updates, instructions on where to go, what action to take and other important information.”
Group messaging apps such as GroupMe and mass email lists initially played a key role for students. Members of the Greek community notified their friends after the DFSL encouraged chapter houses to go under lockdown.
“It was an overload of… information coming at me,” said Sydney Sanzone, the then-Vice President of Risk Management for Delta Gamma.
“Just everyone saying, ‘I think this is happening.’ ‘I think this happening.’ I was like ‘Okay, I need to know what is actually happening instead of hearsay.’”
Two emails sent by a DFSL staff member at 2:13 and 2:26 p.m. preceded UMPD’s own alerts announcing and calling off the emergency at 2:25 and 2:49 p.m., respectively. To many in the campus community, it seemed as though UMPD made a separate, advance call to members of Greek life.
“We don’t have any different relationship with UMD Alerts than everyone else does,” said Corin Gioia Edwards, the Associate Director of Programming and Advising for the DFSL, who sent both emails.
Edwards said the decision to send an email encouraging Greek life presidents to “engage in a lockdown status” came after hearing multiple reports from students that police had begun to barricade the scene. She acknowledged that it may have been confusing for students to hear information from the DFSL and not from the UMPD, but said it was important for her department to reach out to the students for which it’s responsible.
“It doesn’t happen very often like that,” Edwards said. “I think we just decided because we knew it was impacting our students most directly and the police are dealing with the incident in the moment, so they might be like, ‘Well, I’m not going to stop dealing with this incident to send out a communication.’”
More recently, Ohio State University was forced to test its new “Buckeye Alert” system Nov. 28, after a stabbing incident left 13 injured and the attacker shot and killed by a responding police officer. The alert was generic and initially falsely reported an active shooter— but it was able to notify students of the emergency just four minutes after it occurred.
“One of the challenges with sending out an emergency notification is that, a lot of times, a situation happens but [the police] don’t know exactly what is happening,” said Robin Hattersley Gray, executive editor of Campus Safety magazine. “Getting the correct information can be very challenging.”
Ohio State’s new system, according to Robert Armstrong, the university’s Director of Emergency Management and Fire Prevention, allows dispatchers to send out the first alert within a minute or two of receiving an emergency call. A member of the administration will follow up with a more detailed message a few minutes later, but Armstrong said this allows students to be aware of an emergency situation almost immediately.
“Instead of having to stop what they are doing, log onto a website in order to send an emergency alert, [the dispatchers] actually have emergency buttons that are installed on the wall behind them,” Armstrong said. “They can turn around and they can hit the appropriate button and that will initiate an automatic, generic message to our campus community.”
According to Gray, the only related national regulation mandates that a university must “issue an emergency notification when there is a life-threatening emergency.” There are no regulations for how—or within what time frame— notifications should be issued, she added.
Will Dyess, a recent UMD alumnus, wrote a 2013 guest column for The Diamondback titled “UMD Alert: They dropped the ball” after a false bomb threat on campus resulted in a visit from multiple police, firefighters and a bomb detection team— but no UMD Alert.
“By notifying us so late, [the UMPD] created unnecessary angst through rumor-mongering,” he wrote. “We often depend on [them] in emergency situations and were let down.”
There were a handful of other gun-related situations this semester on the UMD campus, like the Sept. 29 murder-suicide involving a student and his father, and the Nov. 6 incident in which two UMD football players were charged with assault after allegedly shooting students on campus with a BB gun.
No situation this semester seriously threatened the entire campus community, but all had a common link: three years after Dyess’s column, “rumor-mongering” continues to dictate the narrative of emergencies on the College Park campus.
Technology allowed for an abundance of communication on Oct. 6 during the roughly 30 minutes before police were able to confirm that the suspect was actually an ROTC student with a rubber training gun. The problem, students argued, was that barely any of that communication was between the police and the campus community.
“I would hope that [UMPD] would tell us the moment that they spot someone with a gun on campus or near campus to alert students that are nearby that they should probably go inside and avoid traversing near that area,” Mitchell said. “I think it would be a lot safer if they actually tell us what’s going on versus keeping us in the dark when they’re trying to figure it out too.”