Students challenge alert system at WMU after mass shooting

Tuesday, February 23, 2016 - 9:11pm

Students at Western Michigan University are raising questions about the reliability and efficiency of emergency alerts concerning off-campus incidents at their college after Saturday night’s mass shootings in Kalamazoo.

Jason Dalton, an Uber driver in the city, shot eight people at random while picking up riders throughout the city between 6 and 10 p.m., killing six and injuring two victims. The incidents occurred in three separate county jurisdictions across the span of more than four hours, with Dalton moving within two miles of WMU grounds at times. No alert was sent out by WMU.

WMU junior Philip Faustman said he drove by the crime scene on his way home from work, but had no idea what had occurred.

“I did see about 20 cop cars there. I couldn’t find anything out until about 11 p.m. when local news reported the news,” he said. “But on Saturday night when kids are out at bars, no one’s in dorms, there’s incredible on-campus traffic moving off-campus. When a large chunk of the student body is going to be affected by this, why was there no alert?”

WMU has an emergency alert system similar to the University of Michigan’s, capable of alerting students, faculty and staff by phone and e-mail. Unlike the University, WMU’s system only reports threats occurring directly on campus, the minimum required of schools by federal law under the Clery Act.

After backlash about the lack of an alert, WMU president John Dunn sent out a public letter to the campus community Sunday noting the need for reform.

“We need to make adjustments in our own procedures to respond to extraordinary circumstances,” he wrote. “Last night's incident clearly was one.”

WMU senior Austin Wines, a residential adviser and student organizer, put together an online petition the night of the shootings calling for improvements to the system. The petition garnered about 1,500 signatures in a day.

In an interview, Wines said the petition focuses on the emergency alert system as an obtainable goal, aiming to match the significant importance of alerts with system improvements to increase campus safety and timeliness of alerts.

“Such a large shooting gaining national attention shines a light on this issue people are now taking seriously,” he said.   

The University of Michigan’s Division of Public Safety and Security alert system differs from WMU in that it alerts the campus community to possible threats both on and off University property through e-mails, tweets, texts to registered devices and messages on the DPSS website and the UM digital gateway. According to DPSS spokesperson Diane Brown, DPSS filters threats before sending out an alert, with help from Ann Arbor city police help in determining the imminence of incidents.

“We work quite collaboratively with the city police as well as the county sheriff,” she wrote in an e-mail interview. “To determine whether or not to issue an alert for an incident not occurring on campus, we would analyze whether we perceive there is a threat to our campus community.”

Wines emphasized that though he was disappointed in the handling of the situation at WMU, he and other student leaders are focused on forward-thinking reform.

“We’re going to be taking a hard look at what we can do now in the 21st century to reflect the type of campus students are calling for,” he said. “We appreciate the cooperation of a lot of different forces on campus to address this issue.”  

After holding a campus town hall, Dunn organized a campus life committee tasked with updating the emergency alert system that includes former members of the National Guard, a former county sheriff and student leaders. WMU spokeswoman Cheryl Roland said the administration is attentive to student concerns and looks forward to dialogue.

“As a university, we need to do better on this front,” she said. “We have a good system in place for alerting people to campus emergencies, and we probably need to formalize a system in which in extraordinary circumstances we can reach out to the community more quickly without setting up a pattern of too many warnings that might jeopardize the way people view them.”