Staff Editorial: Responding to the University’s handling of Nov. 24 public safety incident

A sign protesting the University’s lack of communication during the public safety incident hangs in a Gillson Hall window. PHOTO BY HOLDEN FATHEREE/FOGHORN

On Sunday, Nov. 24 around 7:30 p.m., the Department of Public Safety and the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) apprehended a first-year student who had been posting threatening messages on social media, even going so far as to threaten to shoot students in Gillson Hall, his dorm. The student was eventually restrained and arrested, but only after he had attempted to force his way into Gillson while screaming threats and racial slurs, with nearby residents watching and listening from their windows. 

The USF emergency alert system sent its first message about the situation to the campus community at 7:51 p.m., 20 minutes after the student had been arrested, saying, “There is no active shooter on campus and our community is not in danger.” However, Public Safety first responded to the issue around 3:30 p.m., hours before they ever alerted students — most students, including RAs (Residential Advisers) and CAs (Community Assistants), had received more information from social media platforms or friends than the University itself. While the text was meant to be clarifying, for many, it led to more questions and confusion.

Many students, including the staff of the Foghorn, were frustrated by the lack of communication and clarity around the events as they were happening. 

While we recognize the University’s desire to verify details before sending out alerts to avoid causing needless worry, the lack of communication only led to more panic and concern — students had no idea if they were in danger or not. It was shameful and indefensibly irresponsible for USF to not issue any statement until long after the situation was resolved.

There was never an official lockdown in Gillson, leaving many residents unaware of where was safe. Those in the building were left to sit with their fear, as no one knew whether the student was in the building or whether he was armed.

Even if the University had not deemed a lockdown appropriate, a cautionary message easily could’ve been sent out. For example: “Public Safety is working with SFPD to investigate and address a series of threats to campus. There is no immediate threat at this time, but the community is advised to exercise heightened caution.” Rather than send anything of the sort, the University remained radio silent. 

We believe there was a massive communication breakdown between the school and their students in a way that can only be described as reckless. Waiting to inform students of the active shooting threat (whether the student was armed or not) led to the exact thing that Public Safety claims it didn’t want: panic. 

In the aftermath of Sunday evening, the Foghorn calls for a full review of USF’s mishandling of this situation — who dropped the ball, and what is being done to fix this? The Foghorn believes there is no excuse for the lack of communication. Even though there was no actual “active shooter” on campus, students had no way of knowing this. As far as the campus community knew, the student could have had access to a firearm or felt compelled to follow through on his violent social media vows at any moment — not to mention the fact that he was literally slamming his body into the Gillson front doors while yelling slurs and profanities.

Although the threat was eventually neutralized, the Foghorn believes that USF needs to have an independent audit into the situation, just as it did after the University determined it was too slow to respond to San Francisco’s hazardous air quality levels in fall 2018. The resulting “Wildfire Air Quality Policy” guidelines established clear protocol for how the University will respond to harmful air quality in the future. Likewise, we need to not only learn from Sunday’s incident, which could’ve been so much worse, but establish protocol so that we as a community are prepared in the case of an actual emergency. 

Yesterday’s incident proves that USF is not ready to handle a situation that so easily could have turned deadly. Thank God it did not end up that way. 

One thought on “Staff Editorial: Responding to the University’s handling of Nov. 24 public safety incident

  1. I would just like to say, and I believe that I am likely in the vast minority here, that I have a lot of problems with and in many cases disagree with the sentiment expressed in this Editorial. I agree that it would have been incredibly useful and prudent for the university to issue a message similar to the example posted here – but I disagree with the idea that the university failed entirely in this situation. From how I understand events to have unfolded, as far as this being a possible active shooter situation, the university responded quickly and decisively. Public safety officers and SFPD quickly assessed that the suspect did not have a firearm, and determined that no threat existed. When the threat escalated, it was still quickly determined that the suspect did not have a firearm again, and he was taken into custody. What this editorial is asking the university to do, fundamentally, is put a plan in place for informing the community when nothing is wrong – when potentially something might be wrong, but it turns out that it’s actually nothing. This is because there are plans in place for when something actually is wrong. There are plans in place for what to do if the suspect actually DID have a gun, or DID start shooting – this is asking for a plan for what happens in the absence of those things. I think this is an important difference to keep in mind, because not only does it require the University to put a very finite definition on what potential threat is worth commenting on, but it also requires them to keep some sort of an eye on social media – because that’s really where the panic existed and spread. It’s potentially easy enough for tensions to calm at the scene of the event as people can see it de-escalating. And so, as far as the university is concerned, all they have to do is release a statement about an event that happened that ended, all things considered, pretty well. What this editorial is asking is for someone in the university to keep an eye on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. and for that person to decide when people are freaking out to a degree that requires a calming/informative message to be sent – this seems to effectively be what they attempted to do Sunday night, and it obviously failed horribly. The original message they sent assumed everyone already knew about the situation, likely because that’s what they were gathering from social media. The argument could be made that the university should send out an informative message whenever something like this happens, but the limits of that should also be discussed. The PSafe annual report has the guidelines for when a message is sent and honestly, they feel pretty reasonable – this is obviously a sentiment that is up for debate. So is this Editorial recommending a revision to those guidelines? What kind? Should we be notified whenever PSafe is active on campus? Or just when they determine a prolonged threat to students? Because that’s in their guidelines as being worthy of a message sent, and this incident was not determined to be a prolonged threat to students’ safety. So where exactly did this incident fall through the cracks? I’m not saying that any of these criticisms of the university are wrong, I’m just saying that this Editorial is asking the university to do SOMETHING, but it’s not super clear on WHAT, and that’s not particularly useful either – screaming into the void that somebody messed up definitely makes the writer feel better, and might even make the reader feel better, but it doesn’t pressure the university to actually do anything. Now recommending actual actionable change? That’s significantly more useful, and not even particularly difficult. If the foghorn does write another piece about this I’d love for it to be productive instead of spreading a sentiment that pretty much everyone already agrees with in hopes that it will pressure the university to do something that, by most measurable accounts, it’s already doing just fine.

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