Md. campuses struggle over when to issue emergency alerts

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Mike Roddy (center), electronic security, shows Towson University police Jessica Wright (left), communications operator, and Sgt. Scott Rouch, communications supervisor, how access to buildings during the winter break is controlled using the Linel card access system in the police Communications Center.

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.

Generally, area school officials said, if the threat does not require students to take immediate action, no emergency alert goes out. Crime reports and safety reminders go out later, many in emails — which can take hours to go through — and on university websites.

At Morgan State University, residence hall managers put out the messages on their public address system, but police issue them separately for the student center. At Towson, a 2008 systemwide upgrade lets police blare messages on building public address systems remotely.

Williams, a former chief of detectives for the Baltimore police, said issuing alerts about incidents that are off campus — within a three-block radius of the University of Maryland — had been policy before he arrived nearly two years ago, but there have been improvements. Since the summer, campus police who walk around Lexington Market carry city police radios as part of a partnership with Baltimore police.

The University of Maryland, College Park is among the schools that regularly issue emergency alerts about incidents off campus when suspects may be in the vicinity, as many students live off campus in student housing and nothing stops outsiders from coming onto campus.

Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea said the university issued an alert when a police chase was heading uncomfortably close to campus — one of three emergency alerts in about two years. It has not issued emergency alerts about crimes in the surrounding neighborhoods because perpetrators were gone, but would if students were in danger, he said.


When a man was shot about 1 a.m. last month while walking through the University of Baltimore's downtown campus from the Station North Arts District, campus police put out an email in the morning, noting that they had "just received" the information.

"In my mind, there's no such thing as a bad alert," said Vernon Herron, senior law and policy analyst at the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, College Park and a Maryland state trooper for 27 years. "It's easy to come back and say, 'All's clear.' If you have to think about sending an alert, you should send an alert."

At the same time, experts caution about false alarms. S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for the nonprofit Security on Campus Inc., which advises schools and advocates legislation to keep students safe, said quick alerts are preferred but schools should also be careful.

"While communities respect and appreciate the information, you want to make sure that when they get the information, they know they need to take immediate action," Carter said. "If you start conditioning them that it might be a false alarm, that might not be a good thing."

Towson officials say that rather than turning students off, the gun scare attracted attention to the alert system.

"Immediately after we had the young man who walked across campus with the prop gun, we had an increase of 400 subscribers to the service that day," said Towson University spokeswoman Carol Dunsworth.