Students criticize KatSafe delay in campus gun scare
Published: Friday, October 22, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, October 26, 2010 17:10
[Please note: This story was updated on Tuesday, Oct. 26, and published under a the headline "Campus Gun Scare" in The Houstonian's issue no. 18 of volume 116. Updated information is bolded.]
The Sam Houston State University KatSafe alert system is the subject of student criticism as it was not immediately initiated following the reports of a campus gun scare on Friday.
Around 2:30 p.m. on Friday, the campus was put on lockdown by the University Police Department, after they received an anonymous phone call about several individuals carrying what appeared to be guns near the University Theatre Center.
Police confirmed that there were not multiple gunmen on campus, but rather it was students engaged in a "nerf ball" game, according to a KatSafe notification received by a Houstonian staff member at 4:05 p.m.
UPD Deputy Chief James Fitch confirmed yesterday the students involved were from an organization within the University Theater Center, and that the group did not obtain permission from either the Dean of Students Office or UPD to play this game.
"The good news today [is] that it was toy guns," said Bruce Erickson, SHSU's director of communication, during a press conference on Friday. "It was a group of students, who did not mean harm. The worst thing I could donow is tell you someone got hurt, and that did not happen."
It wasn't until around 3:30 p.m. that police confirmed there was no real threat.
Several university students have raised concerns on social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, about what they said was a lack of timely notification from university officials.
"KatSafe is meant to alert students when something happens, not two hours after the fact," said SHSU student Audrey Morgan in a Houstonian Facebook comment. "We didn't even get a message alerting people. We just got the message saying everything was safe."
University President Dana Gibson, Ph.D., said that the university could have communicated more effectively.
"I think what we need to communicate more effectively is a new communication strategy," Gibson said. "Effective communication is real time communication. By the time students would have been notified of [this incident], it would have already been over. That in itself is a weakness in the system. We have identified the weakness and that is a good thing."
The university has been criticized in the past for timely notification during emergency situations, including an assault and abduction in the fall of 2008.
In 2008, the university implemented the KatSafe system to provide campus leaders and security professionals with the ability to reach students with information and updates during unforeseen events or emergencies within minutes through phone calls, e-mails and/or text messages, according to a university press release.
The system is only activated at the discretion of the University Police Department and the university president, according to the university's 2010 Critical Incident Management System.
Erickson said students were not immediately notified on Friday because the facts were unknown at the time.
"When we send out a message on our system, we don't want it to be wrong," said Erickson. "We don't want to have to correct it. We don't want to cause panic. Had there been a shot fired, [the notification] would have been real fast."
"We wanted a report from the scene [by] one of our officers, who had visual certainty of what they were carrying," Erickson said. "It was 35 to 40 minutes before we had an officer in front of these students."
While Erickson believes that the KatSafe system functioned properly, he agreed there is room for improvement.
"This day could have ended very badly," Erickson said. "We will look at how we communicate…We will adapt our procedures to where the messaging will be handled in a location away from the activity and the action."
Erickson said if students hear rumors and don't get a KatSafe message, then it is still only a rumor until an alert is sent.
Gibson said she wished the university would have had more real time communication abilities.
"I'm sorry from the standpoint that we didn't have real time communication capabilities," Gibson said. "I'm not sure, that for this specific situation, that KatSafe was an effective communication tool."
In the future, Gibson said that in addition to KatSafe, she would like the university to have more of a social media presence when it comes to emergency situations, along with the installation of a loud speaker system in order to increase real time communication.