Students deserve clearer crisis communication

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Photo Credit: Joshua Guerra | Daily Texan Staff

Monday afternoon, one student died and three were injured in an on-campus stabbing. This senseless act of violence, in front of a sizable crowd of students in the busiest part of campus during the busiest time of day, has understandably shaken the university. We offer our condolences to the family of Harrison Brown, who had a full life ahead of him as a bright, exuberant student — and stand in solidarity with all who are saddened and taken aback by his death.

As more information trickles out over the next year, some questions about motive may not be entirely resolved. Our responsibility in the short term is to understand how we can protect and prepare ourselves going forward. Right now, we owe it to ourselves to examine how our campus reacts to emergency situations.

UTPD did what we expect of them on the ground. They were alerted of the incident at 1:46 p.m. and by 1:48 p.m. were on the scene and in the process of making the arrest. We credit them for arresting biology junior Kendrex White without discharging a weapon, living up to the standard we hold them to.

Where they went wrong, as they often have in the past, was in communicating what transpired in a timely manner. Students received a text alert at 2:14 p.m., 28 minutes after they first received a call and 11 minutes after The Texan first tweeted about the incident.

This is not to say information was unavailable — our news team, as well as the Statesman’s, was able to provide reliable information as events unfolded. But students still had to seek out that information, which was often distorted and buried on a Twitter timeline or in a group text amid half-truths and hearsay. UTPD has the power to communicate directly and immediately, and by not acting on what they knew, they run the risk of letting falsehood disseminate at the whims of fear-stricken students.

Those fears, unsubstantiated as they turned out to be once all the facts came out, cannot be ignored by the University. Just because there was no evidence that members of Greek life was being targeted in a systematic fashion either during the stabbings or later in West Campus doesn’t mean that thousands of students didn’t fear for their lives. 

We can’t blame students for erring on the side of caution when these rumors originally circulated, and the police can’t bear the entirety of the blame when a student claimed to have been a victim of a stabbing in an attempt to get out of medical bills. But sorting out blame comes later: It is not the primary task at hand.

Twitter is essentially a game of telephone being played out in real time, exacerbating even the slightest appearance or possibility of danger in situations like these. Official statements are supposed to act as a check on these swirling rumors. They lose their power in the future when they are conspicuously wrong, as they were when UTPD announced that there were no ongoing threats to campus, despite having received reports of a stabbing on 26th street.

It does not matter that there was no risk to campus when White was arrested, that there was no bomb in the communications building or that there was no stabbing on 26th Street. It does not matter that there was no ongoing threat to campus after the failed drive-by shooting on Dean Keeton last week. Inconsistent and unreliable communication erodes public trust and keeps UTPD from best serving us.

Students who contributed to the hysteria by faking reports or generating rumors also deserve their share of criticism. It’s that sort of panic-feeding environment where the racist flyers, an ugly manifestation of campus division, could be influential. But we can’t easily identify those people, and they would lose their power if more of the initial hysteria could be controlled. Our focus going forward has to be on quelling the capacity for these gossipers to make matters worse.

We must also take care not to politicize this incident. Rumors about a student carrying a gun stopping the incident have not been substantiated, and discussion of campus
carry policies won’t help our campus heal right now. Discussing substantive university policy changes, like quicker emergency alerts, with UT President Gregory Fenves, as Student Government did earlier in a meeting, should be our focus.

After two murders on campus in little over a year following a nearly 50-year period without one, we should hope that we can go decades longer without incident. But there’s no better time than now to examine how we can better react to or prevent tragedies like these from happening again.