TO TEXT OR NOT TO TEXT? A NAGGING QUESTION WITH NO EASY ANSWERS
One of the major sticking points in the ongoing discussion about text messaging at MTSU—and undoubtedly on other campuses across the nation—is when to and when not to send an emergency text message. Because there is no easy or right answer, university officials are left to make extremely difficult decisions based on their experience and knowledge—but even as likely on their instincts and best judgment.
The basic criteria for sending a text message across campus—as opposed to issuing a crime-alert email message and posting bulletins that might include a composite drawing—is that a specific incident must (1) pose an imminent threat to the campus at large; and (2) direct the campus population to take some specific action. Short of meeting those two stipulations, MTSU police will not issue an emergency text message.
Yet, there’s the rub. There is much disagreement about what constitutes an “imminent threat” on campus, and this is a subject of ongoing discussion among students, faculty and administrators.
It must be emphasized at the outset of any discussion that a text-messaging system is not a news service. Its purpose is not merely to alert everyone on campus and beyond that something has happened. It is not a device to simply inform and make people feel included. If it were simply a source for news, over time text messaging would lose its impact and importance. Soon people would begin to ignore text messages and dismiss them as “just more spam.”
A text message is an emergency notification—not an e-mail newswire service.
Following an incident of limited impact on campus that may warrant a crime-alert e-mail rather than a text message, some individuals want to know, “Why didn’t I know about it?” The answer is—because it did not reasonably appear to pose a threat to you. The incident was isolated to one part of campus, and officials determined that there was obvious closure or containment to that event.
Several months ago, a man approached a female student outside the Fairview Building, took hold of her arm and suggested that she go with him. At that moment, several people were coming out of the Fairview Building. The man immediately let go of the student, turned and walked west toward the surrounding neighborhood. University Police made the decision to issue a crime-alert bulletin with a composite drawing rather than send an emergency text message. While there was some disagreement about whether or not a text message should have been sent in this case, officials believed, after patrolling the area for a time, that the man had left the campus area and there was no additional threat. (After several days, the man was apprehended off campus and positively identified by the young woman.)
A more recent “attempted abduction” case closer to the campus inner core involved a man in a vehicle who asked a female student for directions, then demanded she get into his SUV. After she refused, he drove off. However, it was not known if he was still on campus. Thus, a text message was sent. While there is not a substantial difference between these two incidents, they also are not identical. Whether there is a continuing imminent threat or closure to an incident remains a difficult judgment call.
Several months ago, a man in a car exposed himself to females in the area of Cummings Hall. In this case, a crime-alert message was e-mailed across campus informing people of the incident and urging everyone to remain vigilant and report any suspicious behavior or activity to University Police. Did this incident warrant an emergency text message? What decision would you have made?
Regarding the recent unfortunate incidents on campus—the phoned-in bomb threat, a suspicious e-mail that spoke of someone coming to campus with a gun, and the attempted armed robbery in a residence-hall parking lot—officials determined that the threat of danger to the campus population was such to warrant an emergency text message, followed by several “alert updates” on the university home page. Two of these incidents involved firearms—one implicit, one very real—and the other, a bomb, a device capable of widespread destruction. In each case, a more imminent threat seemed apparent, and the text message directed recipients to take some kind of action, whether it was to evacuate a building or to remain extremely cautious and vigilant.
There are no easy or absolute right answers. We live, work and go to school in a different world than just a decade ago. Campus police and university officials are faced with challenges and decisions that are new and complex. For every action, there is indeed an opposite and equal reaction. Thus, every call made by officials must be measured carefully to create an appropriate response but to avoid panic.
Responding to a crisis—the unknown, the unexpected or the unthinkable—is a fluid process that involves all of us—students, faculty, and university officials. We must keep the lines of communication open and encourage discussion.
Tom Tozer, Director, MTSU News and Public Affairs
Buddy Peaster, MTSU Chief of Police