On Friday, students received an ambiguous and alarming e-mail from Campus Safety and Security that provided information about an individual, William Burke, who had been posted from campus. Absent from that e-mail was information about how or why Burke was dangerous and how concerned students should be about the incident. While Security’s efforts to inform the student body are commendable, Friday’s communication left students with more questions than answers.
Following November’s hate crime, students made it clear that the administration’s mishandling of the incident was unacceptable. A key criticism from the community was the lack of communication among Security, the administration and students regarding threats to the College campus. By sending security alerts through the all-campus e-mail system, Security can ensure that all necessary parties stay informed and alert. We find it reassuring to know that the College is capable of initiating substantive, large-scale responses to a variety of incidents and threats.
Friday’s e-mail, however, was not an example of exemplary communication from Security. While the e-mail provided Burke’s name, a photo and the make and model of his car, the message said little about the magnitude or scope of the threat he posed, leaving many students to ponder the multiple potential interpretations of the phrase “direct verbal threat.”
Warnings regarding potential threats to the safety of students should never be shrouded in mystery. Students should have been informed of the specific nature of Burke’s threats and whether he posed a danger to the general community. Furthermore, Boyer and the Security staff should have been available and willing to answer questions about the threat and the extent to which students were at risk. We understand that Security works to avoid panicking students, but the failure to provide a sufficient degree of detail in outlining a threat risks doing exactly that.
The all-campus e-mail system is a powerful tool, and it is this power that leads students to assume that any threat disseminated via this medium is serious. If Security and administrators plan to expand their use of all-campus e-mails to include non-violent or limited-scope threats, they should do so with an eye toward this efficacy, recognizing that not all threats are equally dangerous even if they are sufficiently dangerous to warrant communication. Administrators should consider outlining and publishing clear and specific guidelines for all-campus threats so that students can know immediately what to expect from such e-mails. Codifying these procedures will allow for clearer and more effective communication and will avoid the confusion created by Friday’s e-mail.