Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Opinion: The AU Alert system has failed students

With events ranging from an armed intruder to gas leaks, the alert system is inconsistent

Opinion: The AU Alert system has failed students

On July 18, AU’s campus went on a three hour lockdown. This lockdown was due to a potential armed intruder, spotted on New Mexico Avenue. AU police were joined by not just the Metropolitan Police Department, but by Secret Service agents. After these three departments finished a search, the lockdown ended. All, apparently, was well at AU.

I was hundreds of miles away on a family trip to Seattle. What was happening on campus wasn’t on my mind. I found out much later that day that there was a potential threat from Twitter. My friends still in the area had been under threat. But I had no idea. I never received an alert. I only received an email when University President Sylvia Burwell reached out to students two days later on July 20. An email that was supposedly the first of many, “to start a series of updates...on what happened, what went well, and what needs to be improved.”

I have yet to receive an email update about what exactly happened that day or about why I had no idea there was a serious threat on a campus that is supposedly safe. This same email also said that the problem was “a delay in the email notifications sent from our alert system.” In my case, there was no delay in the email system because I still have not received one.

I am far from the only student left confused. A Google Form survey initially created by junior Ryan Barto and analyzed by The Eagle found that of 338 verified students, 73 percent reported not receiving an alert from AU about the armed intruder incident. Whether a student is actively enrolled for a summer session has nothing to do with whether they are on campus or not. Everyone should receive an alert, especially when the situation is so serious. As a student, this is troubling. What may be more troubling is whether these students know if they even should have received an alert.

I have to be frank; I might not be signed up for the AU Alert system. Was that one of the things we were asked to sign up for our freshman year? According to AU Alert website, “University faculty, staff, and students are automatically enrolled into AU Alerts.” But then, it gets a little unclear. The website says that alerts are accessible with an AU username and password. Then it says students should add their phone number and email address. So are students signed up for alerts or not? There are surely students, including myself, who don’t know whether they should have even received an alert because the process is unclear.

The confusion surrounding emergency alerts exposes exactly what is wrong with AU’s communication system in general. The onus seems to be entirely on students to reach out and ask questions. That might be fine pedagogy for the classroom, but student safety defies bureaucracy. An unclear system where I have to search through the AU website to even find out that students should be automatically enrolled is a problem. There is no reason to have mystery surrounding a safety system -- the bureaucracy of the University should not obscure how students stay safe. The fact is, AU has my email. AU has my cell phone number. If I can get an email every single week about something related to the University, I can get an email about an armed intruder.

Not every AU Alert is so dire. On July 27, there was another AU Alert. This time about “police/fire activity at Glover Gate and the Construction site areas on campus.” I never got a text. I never got an email. I saw it on Twitter.

For students like myself, we can only hope the email from Burwell was sincere in that the school is looking into why this happened. If the answer to the problem is that students aren’t correctly signed up for alerts, then there’s another problem. At the very least, every student should be sent an email detailing how to sign up for text message and email alerts. In that July 20 memo, President Burwell stated, “other members of the AU staff will provide information on how you can ensure you’re subscribed to AU Alert notifications, and more detail to help you fully understand our alert system.”

Weeks later, no other members of AU staff have said anything about signing up, correctly, for AU Alert notifications. It’s still unclear to me how I sign up, and if this were to happen on campus again I wouldn’t know. Someone needs to tell students what to do, or change the system.

The solution might be as simple as having the system function just like the AU in the News system. I didn’t sign up for those emails. I get the alert, whether I want to or not. The responsibility wasn’t mine. That’s how safety alerts should work.

Samantha McAllister is a sophomore in the School of International Service and a columnist at The Eagle.

smcallister@theeagleonline.com


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