‘We could have died’: After campus lockdown, students speak out on AU alert system
247 students said they did not receive police alerts about “armed intruder” last week
“Dangerous.” “Scary.” “Alarming.”
These are some of the words used by American University students to describe their feelings after reports of an “armed intruder” near the University prompted a three-hour lockdown on July 18. The lockdown ended after AU police, D.C. police and Secret Service agents searched university buildings to ensure that the person, spotted near New Mexico Avenue, was not on campus.
But the threat was not the only reason students were distressed. Hundreds of students said they were “upset” and “concerned” when they did not receive timely text or email alerts from the American University Police Department regarding the potentially catastrophic incident.
In a Google Form survey, originally created by junior Ryan Barto, 247 students said they did not receive an alert by text or email from AUPD at the time alerts were originally sent. Another 91 students said they did receive timely alerts, but many expressed concern about the effectiveness of the system.
The survey responses were analyzed and verified by The Eagle, which used the AU portal to confirm that 338 respondents were current students.
The University did not make AUPD officials available for interviews, but did respond to a list of questions submitted by The Eagle. Kelly Alexander, AU’s director of public relations, said students currently enrolled for the semester — in this case, summer sessions — will “receive any AU Alert via email that is issued.” (Through the survey, some students who are not enrolled for the summer, or have graduated, reported receiving alerts).
For students enrolled for the summer, Alexander said in an email, there were two reasons they may not have received alerts at the time they were sent.
A system shutdown on the part of the University’s alert vendor, RAVE, caused a delay in the initial email alert sent to students about the lockdown — an error that University President Sylvia Burwell apologized for in a memo sent to the AU community on Friday. The other reason for delayed alerts, Alexander said, could have been poor cell service.
When asked if the University believes there are wider issues with the AU alert system, Alexander responded, “No.”
“The alert system is tested and monitored regularly,” Alexander added. “When an alert is sent, it is monitored in real-time.”
Students describe panic, outrage after not receiving alerts
Despite previously receiving alerts or signing up for them online, several students surveyed said they did not receive them during the lockdown. Sophomore Kelly Mayer said she previously signed up for AU alerts and has the Rave Guardian app, recommended by AU police, downloaded to her phone.
But when the University sent out alerts about the lockdown last week, Mayer did not get them at the time they were sent. She was studying in the Kogod School of Business on July 18 when she heard loud voices and screaming nearby. She wrote it off as a group of kids attending a camp at AU. Ten minutes later, a friend texted her about the lockdown.
“It’s a little disheartening to know that you’ve done all you can to make sure you’re [safe] but it’s not enough,” Mayer told The Eagle.
Mayer, who eventually received the alerts after an extended delay, was far from alone.
Sophomore Cristina Gee was in the Mary Graydon Center last Wednesday, working at her job in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. She was notified of the lockdown by one of her co-workers, and hid in her office with the lights off.
“I feel like the school doesn’t prioritize our safety,” Gee said. “If I didn’t know people who got the alerts, I’d be kept in the dark.”
Outrage over the lack of alerts was not limited to undergraduate students. Several students in the Washington College of Law responded to the survey, stating that many of their classmates studying for the bar exam on campus were not informed of the lockdown for several minutes.
Brianna Gardner, who is entering her third year at the law school, called for “an alert system that works” and encompasses the law school and other graduate programs.
“Schools should be working vigilantly to ensure that their students are safe — and not just the undergrad students,” Gardner said.
Not all students had complaints about the alert system. Alex Russo, a second-year undergraduate, described the system as “super effective and informative.” He said the University does a “really awesome job” of signing students up for alerts at the beginning of their freshman year and at orientation sessions.
Other students, like senior Annika Barth, said they understand the University’s philosophy behind not sending alerts to people who are not enrolled for summer sessions. Barth, who did not receive alerts about the intruder, noted that the University probably does not want to spam students who are not in D.C. or at AU.
But Barth still believes AUPD should send out alerts to everyone in “serious situations.”
“People living and working in D.C. who might not be taking classes could very well be using campus space,” Barth said. “I’m not living in D.C. this summer, but my apartment is right next to campus and I’d probably go there to sit outside or read or write or something whether I was taking classes or not.”
University responds to complaints about alert system, lockdown
Several students who responded to the survey expressed concern about how the lockdown was communicated across campus, particularly to staff and construction workers. One student said they saw a man cutting grass while the lockdown was in place. “He was doing so for almost 30 minutes,” the student wrote.
Alexander, AU’s director of public relations, said that overall, “our community was prepared and knew what to do” during the campus lockdown.
“For example, there were not an overwhelming amount of calls to the AUPD emergency or non emergency numbers which was a sign that people on campus were informed and knew what to do,” Alexander said in an email.
This is not the first time that the AU alerts system and the University’s emergency procedures have fallen under scrutiny. In 2014, after a series of controversial alerts, students questioned the “efficiency and comprehensiveness” of the alert system, The Eagle reported at the time.
The alert system, which is managed by both AUPD and the Office of Information Technology, is “consistently” evaluated for effectiveness and has “proven to function effectively and improve over time,” Alexander said.
In the aftermath of the lockdown, Burwell issued a memo Friday apologizing for “a delay in the email notifications sent from our alert system.” She added that the University was “working to find out how this happened and take steps to ensure it does not happen again.”
I know that a few days after this lockdown there are still some lingering questions and concerns. So I sent this note yesterday to start a series of updates that you’ll receive from AU on what happened, what went well and what needs to be improved. https://t.co/gI9HIE5hDk
— Sylvia M. Burwell (@SylviaBurwell) July 21, 2018
Burwell wrote that other AU staff members will provide information on how to subscribe to AU alerts as well as “more detail” to help students fully understand the alert system.
“I want you to know that every decision I make and all of the work we do here at American University is based on the best information we have and centered on our highest priority – and my highest priority as your president – the safety of every member of our AU family,” she wrote.
In a tweet, Burwell said the University would have more information coming out soon, including “a comprehensive after-action review of the incident and response.” When asked whether this review would be released to the public, Alexander said AU provides safety updates at the start of each semester with reminders about AU alerts and emergency preparedness.
Second, we’ll have some more information coming out soon – including a longer statement from me, and a comprehensive after-action review of the incident and response.
We’ll look closely at what worked well, and what needs improvement going forward.
— Sylvia M. Burwell (@SylviaBurwell) July 20, 2018
“This will be an opportunity to share information about ongoing evaluations with all students as they register and return for the fall semester,” Alexander said.
Students continue to call for accountability from administrators. Barto, who started the Google Form survey, said he hopes to use the data “to bring the concerns and voices of the student body to AUPD.”
Jimmy Valenzuela, a law school student who didn’t receive alerts, wrote in his survey response that he hopes the University will take action after the lockdown
“There needs to be something done, and someone needs to be held accountable for this mishap,” Valenzuela said.
All graphics were made by Eagle graphics editor Jennifer Croney.