THE WEEKLY BLAB
Volume 9, Issue 17 – October 28, 2014
The Difficulty of Decision Making
The past few days were the hardest in my 34 years in higher education. As your president, my most keenly felt responsibility is the safety of our community.
As everyone knows, early last Thursday, someone posted a threat to commit suicide and kill others on our campus on an anonymous social media site called Yik Yak. The message was forwarded to the University Police by both staff and students who saw it, and I was notified soon thereafter. I discussed what to do with our Chief of Police, John Kaplan, and several others. Based on an analysis of the content of the message and several other factors, we decided that the threat, though very serious (i.e., it threatened something dangerous), wasn’t credible or imminent, and decided not to close the college at that point. We decided to contact the SUNY police and multiple other law enforcement agencies to get advice on how to proceed, and if any disagreed with what we were doing, to reconsider. We contacted Yik Yak to try to trace who had posted the message. We also decided that we needed to inform our community and sent out an email at 4:00 AM stating that a threat had been received, but that we didn’t think it was credible.
The Executive Cabinet met at 8:00 in the morning, was updated on what we knew so far, and then decided that the college should remain open. We decided to reconvene at 11:30 AM. We also decided that we should all do a walk around campus, both to show that we thought the campus was safe, and just to be sure we didn’t spot anything suspicious. Our residence hall staff did the same in their halls. Nothing was spotted and the students, faculty, and staff on campus were largely calm, though the number of students in class was down significantly. I contacted various offices at SUNY, telling them what was going on.
At 11:45 AM, we were notified that a second threatening message had been posted. The nature of the second message was different from the first (in ways that I won’t describe for reasons I’ll give below), and we decided to lock down the campus, immediately sending out messages on email and on NY Alert. The police on campus scoured the area, but nothing unusual was observed and no incidents were reported.
At 2:00 PM we decided to begin releasing people from the various academic buildings. Operating with an abundance of caution, teams of police were sent to each building in turn, first to search the building carefully, and then to escort the persons there either to their cars in the parking lots, or to the residence halls if they lived on campus. This was obviously a slow process, but by 5:00 PM, all academic buildings had been emptied. Again, no incidents were reported. During this period, we were joined by SUNY Police Commissioner Bruce McBride, who had driven up from Utica.
As we finished with the academic buildings, we began a room-by-room search of the residence halls, to make sure that all residential students were safe and could be accounted for. St. Lawrence University called, offering any assistance we needed. Since we knew that when we lifted the lockdown we would have lots of hungry students, we asked St. Lawrence’s food service if they could bring some easily transportable meals and assist the staff in Chaney Dining Hall to bring them to the residence halls. By 6:30, the residence halls had all been searched and cleared, and the lockdown was lifted soon thereafter. Food was delivered at 7:00 by Chaney and SLU personnel.
Throughout the lockdown process, we sent out updates by email, NY Alert, and on social media every hour. The Executive Cabinet was in constant meeting, reviewing all new information. When lockdown was lifted, we decided that it was safe for the campus to be open on Friday. Several news media reported what was happening and there were several reporters just off campus waiting for the lockdown to be lifted. At 7:20, we did a brief press conference. Afterwards, several of us walked down to the residence halls to make sure everyone had been fed and was feeling OK, and we were glad to see that everything was fine.
We then went to the University Police Office to thank the officers, both from our campus and from outside, for their fine work. My wife called at this point, totally unaware of what had been happening, and asked how my day had been. I told her I’d call her (she’s still in Georgia finishing up the selling of our house) when I got back home.
We decided to send out one last email for the day at 11:00 PM, expressing our thanks to the campus community for their patience and cooperation during the lockdown and thanking the many police agencies that had helped us, which included the Canton Village Police, the St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, the New York State Police, Homeland Security Investigations, the F.B.I., and the Bureau of Criminal Investigations unit of the State Police in addition to our own University Police. We informed everyone that we believed the campus was safe and that classes would resume.
We were concerned that there might be more threat postings on Thursday night, but there weren’t. The Executive Cabinet met again at 8:00 on Friday morning, and were informed that there were no incidents to report. Classes proceeded as normal on Friday, with attendance down, but only by a little. We carefully reviewed the decisions we had made and the actions we took the previous day, to determine if there were any second thoughts or if we could have done anything better. Everyone thought we had gotten all the big decisions right, though there were a few small things that we’ll be looking at more closely.
The rest of the day was uneventful, with no incidents reported. A reporter from WWNY-TV interviewed me at 1:00 PM. We decided to have a series of open forums to update the campus on Monday, one for faculty, one for staff, and one for students.
On Saturday, I arrived at the University Police Office a little after 11 AM, where I was told that the person who had posted the threat had been caught, arraigned, and was now in federal custody. Our campus communication team was quickly assembled, and we sent out an announcement to the campus and to the media.
As you know, I strongly believe in open communication and sharing all information on our campus. The synopsis above only omits some details that could jeopardize the ongoing investigation, and any information that could be used by people who may wish to do similar things in the future.
A few questions have been asked pretty frequently, so I’ll try to address them here for those who couldn’t come to the open forums.
Why didn’t we shut down the campus immediately when the first threat was posted? As we informed the campus community, for various reasons all related to our threat assessment methods, we did not think that the threat was credible or imminent. A posting on Yik Yak has been described by others as having the same level of credibility as graffiti on a wall. While some may think that we should shut down the campus if there’s any possibility whatsoever of a threat, that’s a really bad idea for several reasons, of which I’ll only name a few. First, it could cause a panic that is much more dangerous than the threat itself. Second, if the threat were real, it could cause the perpetrator to move into action more quickly. Third, if we were to shut down the campus for any level of threat this time, it would establish a pattern of behavior where we’d have to do it every time there was any kind of threat, regardless of its credibility. The result would be much more frequent postings of threats (it would have worked, so we’d get more of it). This, in turn, would result in more frequent lockdowns or closings, which would begin to be ignored due to their frequency (as in the “boy who cried wolf”). If there were a real emergency, we would then be in even more serious danger. The path of greatest safety for everyone is to do a proper and thorough risk assessment and then act accordingly, neither over-reacting nor under-reacting. Sadly, no path exists that can absolutely guarantee everyone’s safety.
Why didn’t we take the first threat seriously? In fact, we took the threat extremely seriously. That’s why we took many actions, the most important of which was doing a thorough threat analysis. That’s why we called in help from the various police agencies, including Homeland Security Investigations and the F.B.I. That’s why we contacted Yik Yak to trace the person who posted the threat. There’s a big difference between taking a threat seriously and finding it to be credible.
Why didn’t we close the campus Friday, given that we hadn’t yet caught the person who posted the threat? The entirety of our actions on Thursday, including the continuous updating of our threat analysis, the absence of any incidents, and having thoroughly searched the campus, gave us confidence that our campus was safe. Staying closed until the perpetrator was caught would be a really bad idea for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which is that some perpetrators are never caught. Following that standard, any unsolved major crime would cause the permanent closure of wherever that crime occurred. Further, it throws out the idea of making decisions based on a threat analysis, which (as stated above) provides the safest possible path forward.
Are we perfectly safe going forward? Sadly, no. We live in a world where bad things happen, as recent events in Ottawa make all too clear. There will always be a risk that bad things may happen. Each day, we will continue to monitor our situation, gather information, and carry out threat analyses. We will continue to respond accordingly. As your president, my greatest concern and most keenly felt responsibility is for the safety of our community. We are fortunate that we have an extremely effective University Police force, as well as a campus community that knows how to respond, and that combination results in the safest possible environment.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, the past few days were the hardest of my life. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for the support from the Executive Cabinet, our University Police, the various police agencies that provided us with invaluable assistance, and from our entire campus community.
Last Week’s Trivia Contest
Last week’s contest had questions all had to do with the word blue. Our winner was Christina Lesyk who was the first to get them all right. Others with all five correct included Melinda Miller, Rajiv Narula, Julie Parkman, Rhonda Rodriquez, Janel Smith, Patricia Todd, Crystal Simmons, Robin Gittings, Kari McCormick, “Mike Pinkrn” (I only have the email address), Marcia Sullivan-Marin, Chelsea Chase, and Carmela Young.
- Nursery rhyme boy that should come blow his horn. Little Boy Blue.
- Major US health insurance organization. Blue Cross/Blue Shield.
- Beautiful hamlet located in the Adirondacks, at the intersection of NY 28 and 30. Blue Mountain Lake.
- The bad guys in the Beatles animated movie Yellow Submarine. Blue Meanies.
- The Navy’s flight squadron, known for its aerial acrobatics. Blue Angels.
This Week’s Trivia Challenge
Staying with our theme of colors, this week’s questions all have to do with the word “gold”. As usual, the first with the most takes the prize. No looking up the answers now! SEND ALL ENTRIES BY EMAIL TO firstname.lastname@example.org since if you put them as a response on the BLOG, everyone will be able to see them!
- Fairy tale character that spent some time with the three bears.
- It’s kept at Fort Knox, in Kentucky.
- Someone who marries only to get their spouse’s money.
- It happened in California between 1848 and 1855, starting at Sutter’s Mill.
- 1981 Movie starring Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, set in Squam Lake in New Hampshire!