AlertSU Blast Causes Controversy

On the day of the Stanford v. UCLA football game, Stanford students received a text message that said: “Robbery occurred at 1200 hours. Suspect is at large. More info to follow.” The text came via Stanford’s emergency AlertSU system.

The AlertSU system is one way that Stanford complies with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (Clery Act), a “federal mandate requiring all institutions of higher education (IHEs) … to disclose information about crime on their campuses and in the surrounding communities,” according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Center’s website.

According to Stanford’s Police Chief Laura Wilson, the 2007 Virginia Tech Shooting “catapulted” development in systems like AlertSU. The multimodal communication aspect of AlertSU encompasses text messages, phone calls, emails and an outdoor warning system – all provided through the service of a third-party.

One student, Shadi Bushra ’12 said that he was not happy with how the police handled the recent situation.

“Personally, I got a phone call from my mother literally out of breath and ready to have a diabetic attack because she got a cryptic call from Stanford telling them that something was wrong,” Bushra said. In his opinion, the message should have clarified “that it was a relatively minor incident involving one out of many thousands of students.”

The Stanford Police later described the incident more fully as a male robbing a female near the intersection of Palm Drive and El Camino Real.

“The suspect bumped her while she was jogging and forcibly stole her keys and cell phone,” the Stanford police’s website said. A follow-up text said, “No weapons involved; minor injury to victim.”

“I think that the Stanford Police Department has good intentions when they notify students and parents,” Bushra said. “But I think that prematurely notifying parents – who already worry so much about their children doing something stupid or being the victim of someone desperate – does no one any good.”

According to Wilson, complaints about AlertSU are not uncommon. “AlertSU is a tool and all tools have limitations,” Wilson said in an email to the Review. She explained that the whole process from a call to the dispatcher to distributing an alert can take from six to 15 minutes after responding to the scene and confirming facts.

“Now the advent of technology has advanced to the point where we can now provide that information in real time to the community,” Emergency Manager Keith Perry from Stanford’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety explained. Despite the better delivery system, however, he said, “We want to reinforce that technology is not perfect and we encourage a community response to an event.”

Wilson said that the police receive complaints every time that it uses the system. She categorized such complaints into the following categories:

“Is ____ really an emergency?

Why wasn’t the alert sent sooner?

Please take me off the list.  I don’t want to receive these alerts.

Using race or ethnicity to describe individuals perpetuates prejudice.

Hispanic is not a race.

The police website wasn’t updated when I checked it.”

According to Wilson, a resident of the dorm where the victim in the above-mentioned robbery lives was overheard by a police officer saying, “I don’t care about a robbery. These messages are annoying.”

“I suspect when she learns that it was a dorm-mate who was attacked, her perspective will change,” Wilson said.

Other students, however, did seem to appreciate the use of the Alert SU system.

Caela Cook ’15 said that she was impressed with the speed of the alert and found it helpful. She added that after the alert she was more prepared to use the pepper spray that she carries with her at all times.

“I was happy to know that Stanford told everyone about it,” Freshman Ish Menjivar said. “Afterwards, I saw the sketched image of the person and thought I should keep an eye out.”

Perry affirmed the importance of distributing this type of information to the Stanford community.

“It’s really important that when people receive an alert they think carefully what that alert means for them and their own personal safety and then take appropriate action base[d] on that,” Perry said. “In some cases that may not change their overt behavior in any way, shape or form, but they will be hopefully more vigilant and more prepared should something happen.”

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