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University Responses to Bomb Threats Scrutinized

In the last several days, multiple universities, including two in Texas, have received bomb threats. The different responses highlight the individual nature of each case and raise questions of how best to go about warning a campus.

UT freshmen Utkarsh Paul (l), Joesph Zukis (c) and Jorge Mathuta (r) were evacuated from their dorms after receiving a text message from UT warning them of a possible threat. (September 14, 2012)

Shortly after 2 a.m. on Sunday, John Cardoza, the chief of police on the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, got word that someone called a national crisis hotline and declared his intention to bring a bomb onto the campus.

Cardoza sent word up the university’s chain of command and notified key law enforcement officials in different agencies. Roughly 13 hours after the threat was made, campus officers and a team of Texas Rangers surrounded a nearby apartment and arrested a student, charging him with making a terrorist threat.

In the meantime, no sirens went off on campus. No mass text messages went off. Nobody evacuated. In other words, it was a far cry from the scene at the University of Texas at Austin, where a bomb threat on Friday prompted officials to empty all the campus buildings and cancel classes. Days later, no suspect has been apprehended.

UT-Brownsville and UT-Austin are two of a handful of universities that have received bomb threats in recent days. Others include North Dakota State University on Friday and Louisiana State University on Monday — in both cases, the campuses were evacuated.

The rash of incidents has placed university responses to such threats in the spotlight. Given that the media attention the threats have garnered has, according to officials on multiple campuses, also stirred concern about (and possibly already prompted) copycat crimes, it is perhaps appropriate that September happens to be National Preparedness Month.

The dramatically different responses from the two University of Texas System schools illustrates the importance of being prepared for anything on a college campus.

“Decision-makers need to evaluate each threat on a case-by-case basis,” said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus. “That’s what the challenge is: There is no prescription for how to react to an emergency.”

Since 2008, the federal Jeanne Clery Act — named for a young woman who was raped and murdered at Lehigh University in 1986 — has required universities to “immediately notify the campus community upon the confirmation of a significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or staff occurring on the campus,” unless “issuing a notification will compromise efforts to contain the emergency.”

Cardoza didn’t issue mass emergency notifications because the threat did not pose immediate danger. The suspect had pledged to bring a bomb to blow up a specific individual later in the week. “It was 2 a.m. and the threat wasn’t imminent,” Cardoza told The Texas Tribune. “We had time on our side to find the individual, identify the location and make an arrest. But every situation is going to be different.”

At UT-Austin, the threat was more general and the time frame much narrower. A call at about 8:30 a.m. warned of bombs going off in multiple buildings in 90 to 120 minutes. Though bombs never exploded, administrators have been criticized for failing to sound sirens on campus and issue text messages until more than an hour after the first call came in to the university’s general line. Some said that was too close to the threatened 90-minute mark.

Robert Dahlstrom, chief of campus police at UT-Austin, said he understands the concerns and has scheduled — and already held — multiple meetings to review their system for handling such threats and improving it. “I’m never satisfied when people aren’t happy,” he said. “We do our best to make it so that everyone feels safe.”

The vast majority of bomb threats — including those that have occurred in recent days — turn out to be hoaxes.

“It’s easy to make a phone call,” UT-Austin President Bill Powers noted at a press conference on Friday.

In the intervening hour between the threat and the decision to issue an emergency alert, officials said they did not determine that an explosion was imminent but rather that they were unable to satisfactorily determine that one wasn’t.

It wasn’t as clear cut as, say, the confirmed presence of a shooter on or near campus — something Texas A&M University in College Station recently dealt with and UT-Austin experienced in 2010.

“You have business continuity on one end [of the spectrum], but this one kind of leaned more on the safety side rather than trying to work through it otherwise,” Dahlstrom said of Friday’s events.

“If the threat had been that something is going to happen in five minutes,” Powers said at the press conference when pressed on the university’s response time, “then we treat every case individually.”

The decision made, sirens began blaring, text messages went out to students, some desktop computers around campus began flashing a warning and flat-screen televisions around campus began broadcasting the threat.

Later, when staff at The Daily Texan, the student newspaper, posted a question on the social media site Reddit asking, “Where were you at 10:00 a.m.?” — the earliest time the caller threatened that the bombs might detonate — several students speculated that they would have died because they were either in buildings or near buildings on campus.

Some said they thought the sirens were merely drills, like the university holds on the first Wednesday of every month. Others indicated that they received text message warnings shortly before 10 a.m., but others — possibly because of the high volume of cell phone activity — didn’t receive them until after.

“One thing we talk about quite a bit is the need for a holistic approach,” Kiss, of the Clery Center, said of emergency notification. “If those cell towers are down or overloaded, you need to have a backup.”

She said emergency notification systems are continually evolving and that universities and service providers should be constantly searching for ways to make them more effective.

“At the end of the day on Friday,” Dahlstrom said, “we didn’t have anybody hurt. We didn’t have anybody killed. And we have a process we can work on.”

Officials also stressed the importance of community involvement. “People need to be educated on the seriousness of making a false threat,” Kiss said, “and if they see something or know that somebody is doing that, how to go and make a report so that it can stop.”

Vigilance, they said, is especially important in light of the recent flurry of campus threats. As Kiss put it, “There’s always the fear of the copy cat.” Or, as Dahlstrom said, “Sometimes crazies get crazies fired up.”

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