When a University of Maine student was stabbed outside a fraternity on Jan. 22, officials responded by warning the campus through its emergency alert system, sending text messages and e-mails to students.
The messages were sent more than an hour after Public Safety received the call about the incident, rather than immediately. Some students have expressed concern about the time it took to warn the campus, but university officials have said because the police knew the location of the suspect, and because they had confirmed the altercation was an isolated incident, they felt an immediate notification to the community was unnecessary.
“There are a number of ingredients that go into the decision-making matrix; whether or not to alert, and in so doing, sometimes alarm the community,” said UMaine Police Chief Noel March. “If we did not have all of the information that we had, we would have issued a text and a FirstClass [notification] and perhaps even a siren warning much earlier. We opted to do the text and the FirstClass as a precaution and as community information.”
March said in this case, the notification might not even have been necessary, but some students disagree.
“That freaks me out,” said Heather Pilling, a first-year English and theater student. “They should definitely use it as soon as possible.”
“I don’t feel safe anymore,” Pilling said, who signed up for the UMane.txt in August.
Luis Valencia, an undeclared first-year student, wrote in an e-mail, “The notification came way too late to be of any service other than to start a rumor mill.”
“I think [UMaine.txt] great, it just needs to be improved so people get the information faster,” Valencia said.
Out of the approximately 12,000 students and 2,500 faculty and staff at UMaine, only 5,500 people are signed up for text messages from the emergency service as of last Thursday. Because of this, less than half of UMaine students received the messages.
An additional 900 people signed up Monday, Jan. 24 — more than the number who signed up during 2009. Dean of Students Robert Dana said a lot of people have e-mailed him since Saturday to thank the university for the emergency system and to say it worked well.
“We had the suspect under arrest in two and a half hours,” March said. “We would notify the entire community if we felt that there was a risk to the entire community, that we felt someone else might be a potential victim.”
“I’m not saying it wasn’t [necessary] — I want to be very clear on that,” March said. “It was more of a precaution and a courtesy alert because we believe in keeping the community informed as best we can.”
March and Dana both said they felt the system performed flawlessly. Director of University Relations Joe Carr said, “I’m delighted with how well it worked.” Carr also stressed the need for more people to sign up for the system.
“The biggest weakness we have in our system is people’s reluctance to sign up for text messages,” Carr said.
Users’ subscriptions to the text message service expire after a pre-selected period of time — usually four years — after which they have to sign up again. The reason for the expiration is because most phone companies require it and so graduates don’t continue to receive text messages after they leave UMaine. Four years is the maximum amount of time a student can select for the service, but the university is planning to upgrade next month to increase that length of time. The service is free and open to families of students as well.
March said he thinks there should be 15,000 people signed up for UMaine.txt.
“If there’s a real crisis on campus, and it’s important enough for us to want to let you know what we’re doing and what’s happening, then we want to make sure as many people as possible have access to that information.”
March said he spoke to two people who didn’t receive the text messages on Jan. 22 because their subscription had expired.
The notification system also includes online alerts at www.umaine.edu and three warning sirens placed around campus, which university officials decided were unnecessary for Jan. 22. The university successfully tested the sirens and the rest of the system on Friday. March said the sirens are a notification for community members to seek further information.
Similar incidents have taken place at other universities around the country. After a University of Connecticut football player, Jason Howard, was stabbed to death in October, UConn officials notified students through their own alert system three hours after police were notified of the murder.
After a stabbing in November at Cornell University, students notified each other through text messages and e-mails. Cornell officials neglected to use the university’s emergency alert system to notify its students. The Cornell Daily Sun, the university’s student newspaper, wrote that the incident “raised questions on the effectiveness of the official channels to notify students of potential dangers.”
Many universities employ emergency notification services like UMaine’s, which Dana described as a “model system.”
“We knew where Mr. [Christopher] Girourd lived in Sebago, Maine, and we have his mother’s phone number. It’s a little bit like when you make a decision around setting bail on someone who’s charged with a crime. That’s an insurance policy that person’s going to stay in custody until his or her court date,” March said.
March said he felt the community should have faith in the police when determining whether or not there is a threat to the campus.
Dana said the university decided to issue the alert because he felt it should be conservative in its response to the stabbing, but that it would likely have been issued even without his insistence.
“The control and command of the situation was beautiful,” Dana said.
UMaine implemented the emergency system in 2007 after the Virginia Tech shootings.