Two days after a University of Texas at Austin student stabbed four other students on campus, killing one, the university’s president, Gregory L. Fenves, sent an an email to the college’s community, offering words of comfort. But sandwiched between his condolences was an admission of guilt:
We were too slow to let the entire campus know about the stabbings after they happened. And UTPD was too quick to report there was no threat west of campus because, as we learned later that evening, an incident had taken place.
Students rely on us to make decisions for their safety and well-being, and we need to do better. We will do better.
What went wrong in the university’s response to Monday's stabbing, in which Kendrex White, a 21-year-old biology major, attacked three others with a Bowie knife, killing freshman Harrison Brown? According to students, a lot. “Thanks for using the emergency sirens and texts y'all test every fucking month, but not for an actual stabbing on campus @UTAustin,” tweeted one student. “@UTAustin My phone should be blowing up with warnings this is unacceptable,” wrote another.
From looking at a timeline of Monday’s events, city officials were quicker to communicate the situation to the public than campus ones. At 1:56 p.m. that day, Austin-Travis County EMS tweeted to its 23,000 followers that medics were on the scene of a stabbing at the school. The Austin Police Department sent its first tweet about the incident at 2:07 p.m. to its 104,000 followers, warning people to stay away from the area where the stabbing occurred. Both accounts followed up with several updates.
The school, on the other hand, waited until 2:14 p.m. to send a text message alert to its 50,000 students, nearly 30 minutes after the initial emergency call came into the school’s police department and 20 minutes after the city first reported the incident.
Cindy Posey, the school’s director of Internal and Campus Safety Communications, told The Outline that the school’s emergency page was updated and a mass email sent out to the campus community at the time the first emergency text went out. And though an officer was on the scene within two minutes and quickly apprehended White, that chunk of time without information led to unnecessary confusion for those on campus. A subsequent non-credible bomb threat at a nearby campus building only added to the spread of misinformation.
More than 15,000 people follow the school’s police department on Twitter, but the account didn’t tweet about the incident until 2:33 p.m., saying “Unidentified suspect apprehended for stabbing two subjects and assaulting a [sic] one other. One of the victims died due to their wounds.” Within the minute, they followed up with a tweet saying: “Subject is in custody and there is no ongoing threat to the campus community. We'll provide new details as they unfold.” By then, however, social media was already filled with speculation. One rumor that the attacker was active and targeting sorority and fraternity members was especially popular. A post reading, “if you're at UT Austin, take off your Greek letters!! The group of stabbers are targeting West Campus right now!!!!!!” was retweeted 540 times.
According to the university’s emergency communication tools webpage, there are 12 ways campus security and safety can communicate emergencies to campus, but the school could only confirm that four of them were used.
Notably, the campus siren system was not used. When asked why, David Carter, the chief of the school’s police force, told reporters that it “would have indicated there was something else going on like a lockdown or something along those lines” and was unnecessary because, with White apprehended, there was no ongoing threat at the time.
Determining just how long the threat was ongoing will be crucial for the school going forward. In the past, schools have been fined under the Clery Act for failing to alert students of ongoing campus danger in a timely fashion. TheaAct, passed in 1990, requires colleges and universities receiving federal student financial aid to follow certain procedures ensuring transparency around crimes on campus. It also requires that these institutions provide timely warnings of ongoing threats to campus safety to prevent further harm. Virginia Tech paid $32,500 in 2014 for failing to sufficiently alert the campus community during a 2007 massacre on its campus.
Posey said that the university is still working on a timeline of its response to the stabbing attacks and couldn’t immediately provide one.