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Warning: Examining Tufts Safety Alert Policies In the Wake of The Recent Handgun Scare

News & Features | April 23, 2018

Just five days after the March for Our Lives, a protest against gun violence in Washington, DC, a Tufts student reported to TUPD that she saw someone carrying a gun on campus at around 2:50 p.m. After talking to an officer, the student posted in the Tufts Chi Omega Facebook page about what she had seen, writing that TUPD had sent out officers to find the individual and that the officer she had spoken to “confirmed that what [she] had described was in fact a handgun.” Word of the possible gun spread quickly across interpersonal campus networks. A screenshot of the Facebook post was passed from group chat to group chat. Senior Maude Plucker received this screenshot from her boyfriend as she sat in a crowded area of Tisch Library. “My immediate response was panic and disbelief—it didn’t make sense that a second-hand Facebook post was telling me such crucial, life-threatening information when TUPD was silent.” No one around her in Tisch was acting out of the ordinary, so Plucker stepped out into the hallway and called TUPD. The officer told her that the issue was being investigated, but it was safe for her and others to go about their day as normal. “Right after calling TUPD, I wrote a Facebook post with the information I had just been told. I wanted to share some accurate, recent information in case people were panicking, experiencing trauma, or just very confused.” She didn’t receive an email update from TUPD until two hours after she called them.

Tufts University Police Department and the Department of Public Safety head emergency protocol and campus security. According to the Tufts University Office of Emergency Management’s website, “in the event of a significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of the Tufts community, Tufts University will, without delay, and taking into account the safety of the community, determine the content of the notification and initiate the notification system.” Systems such as TuftsAlert, which is “designed to notify students, faculty, and staff by sending text, voice, and email alerts with information that may be critical to your safety,” are in place for emergencies where response time is critical. But after the events on Thursday, March 29, when a segment of the Tufts population believed there was someone with a gun on campus, the realities of these methods of communication were made clear. In the wake of what was, in effect, a non-event—and the context of increasing national attention on gun violence in schools—some students feel these methods don’t meet the expectations they hold for transparency and safety.

On the day of the alleged handgun incident, Public Safety soon learned that “inaccurate reports began to spread on social media.” In an email interview, Kevin Maguire, Executive Director of Public Safety and Police Chief at Tufts, wrote that “if the Tufts University Police Department (TUPD) had thought that there was an active, ongoing threat to our community on Thursday, March 29, 2018 [TUPD] would have communicated that immediately and given direction about what to do to stay safe using the TuftsAlert system. That is always our standard response for such an incident.” After receiving the report, officers found the person who sent the information in and searched the scene. Because they hadn’t received any other reports about the suspect, they established that there wasn’t an active threat. The time between the report of the alleged gun and the emails from Public Safety, though, was long enough that some students felt less than confident in TUPD’s emergency protocol. “TUPD’s response was a non-response…We waited for the TuftsAlert message that would move us into action,” said senior Chloe Boehm. “The email sent later that day felt like an afterthought. It made me wonder—why do we have TuftsAlert? Isn’t it in place to warn us about potentially dangerous emergency situations?” So, then, where does the balance between keeping a community informed and due diligence and prevention of panic lie?

In contrast to the panic some were experiencing, many students remained unaware about the potential gun threat because they didn’t receive the screenshot of the initial Facebook post from any of their friends. So, while several students were worried for their lives, others were going about their day as usual. The duality of this response is largely due to the rapid spread of information through social media. And the information being spread was not actually false—the student simply reported something that they believed to be dangerous. Maguire encourages students to do this, even if they are unsure of the situation at hand: “We ask community members to say something if they see something and leave the investigation of that reported observation to us. It’s always appropriate for a person to contact us if they are uncertain what to do. Some reports might turn out to be perfectly safe, but that’s okay.” However, some students feel that it wasn’t the emergency response that was the problem—it was the lack of communication that was so troubling. “I would like more transparency and even more conservative emergency response procedures,” said Plucker.

This is not the first time concerns over the possibility of an armed person on Tufts’ campus have proven to be misguided: On December 3, 2010, around 2:35 p.m., a student reported having seen a Black man with a revolver walking down Professor’s Row. The first security alert was sent over an hour later at approximately 3:50 p.m., with the subject “Safety Alert: suspicious person reported with a handgun.” TUPD sent another email an hour later confirming that the man in question—a Tufts employee—was in possession of not a gun, but a wrench.

Racial discourse erupted on campus. The day after the report, signs were plastered around campus that juxtaposed a photograph of a White person’s hand with painted fingernails holding a wrench with that of a Black person’s doing the same. The word “WRENCH” was below the first image, and “GUN” below the latter. The Tufts Daily published a number of opinion pieces following the false alarm, whose conclusions ranged from urging the community to reflect on where the event fit into the greater context of racial profiling in our society to asserting that the event had nothing to do with race, and that making it a race issue was mocking peers for trying to keep the community safe. This intense blowback does highlight how necessary it is that officers fully investigate these reports and disseminate updated and accurate information. But in one of the aforementioned opinions pieces, a student responded to the Safety Alert email with a much more blasé attitude than those who saw the Facebook screenshot last month. In fact, after reading that the initial TUPD search had turned up nothing, he “figured it wasn’t so bad” and went back to doing his homework. While Public Safety responses to these incidents seems to have stayed fairly consistent, student response certainly has changed.

Discourse surrounding school shootings and gun violence in our country has skyrocketed in the eight years since the 2010 incident, let alone in the past year. Of the 30 deadliest mass shootings in the United States, 13 have happened in the last eight years. Three of those 13 were at schools. These incidents are by no means equivalent, but students are well aware that the situation is always a viable possibility. Those students aware of the potential threat contextualized their fears in terms of the current political debate about gun violence. Junior Shane Woolley said in a Facebook post that he, too, found out about the possible gun through friends and social media, and that he immediately feared for his life: “Mass shootings, particularly at schools, are now such a part of our cultural subconscious that you don’t have to dig very deep to find that fear. We have a uniquely violent society compared to other industrialized nations, and a perverse gun culture funded by the NRA that fuels it.” This cultural context for students’ concern manifests in an increasing interest in transparency from Public Safety and Emergency Management.

Ultimately, March 29 was a false alarm—according to 2010 Somerville Police Department Deputy Chief Upton, they receive similar calls “more often than not”—and not the active, ongoing threat required for immediate TuftsAlert communication. In the end, this was not a case of institutional negligence. The silence from TUPD in combination with word of mouth may have heightened concern at the time, but there simply wasn’t much information for TUPD to report without spreading existing fear. In times of panic, it is easy to feel that no news is bad news, but sometimes it just means there is no news. The tension of the situation may create an urge to find a scapegoat, but there really is no one here to blame.