Melissa Holzberg: GW should improve communications during on-campus emergencies

Last Tuesday night was the first time I ever felt scared to be at GW. Like many students on a weekday night, I was out of my residence hall and doing homework around 11:20 p.m. when we all received the safety and security alert that informed us that that there was a possible shooter on the corner of 20th and F streets, which is near multiple residence halls.

The alert told students remain indoors, so I did. I was nervous about what could be happening, and I anxiously contacted my family to tell them I was OK. I was about two blocks away from the reported incident and continued looking out the window for police activity, like sirens or police cars. Later that night I was relieved that the situation resolved itself, which I found out from another GW alert. And the next day I felt extremely reassured when it turned out the situation was a false alarm.

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Melissa Holzberg

But an active shooter on campus could have been a real situation. And if it had been true, the University should have given students more information, instead of letting 40 minutes pass without any updates. Of course, it’s important that officials don’t release preliminary information without all of the facts. But students should have gotten more consistent updates about the steps police were taking – even if they just told us that investigations were ongoing.

When The University of California at Los Angeles faced an on-campus shooting in June, it wasn’t immediately known if there was a potential shooter or a shooting incident. UCLA’s official Twitter account sent out 10 tweets about the lockdown, where police were on the scene and to tell students that the situation was contained when they announced an “all clear.” Of course in that situation, the result was far more dire than the incident in Foggy Bottom last week. But when students at GW got the first alert, none of us were sure how dire it was. The University’s official Twitter sent out one tweet when the situation was cleared, and the University Police Department’s Twitter account retweeted the University’s statement, but they could have used Twitter more actively throughout the night.

A more effective form of communication would have been for the University to continuously update its official social media about the situation, especially if they didn’t feel they had enough information to send out safety alerts. Twitter is the perfect platform to use to reiterate shelter-in-place information and to community members what is going on.

Last year, University President Steven Knapp addressed the Faculty Senate after several campus shootings rocked the U.S. In his talk, he said the University was paying attention to the shootings, and officials wanted to work on handling reported shooter situations, which was necessary. GW has struggled in past years when it’s come to dealing with possible shooters on campus. But despite having said officials were going to do more to prepare for active shooter situations, it still feels like they came up short last week.

On Oct. 2, two students were shot at a party at North Carolina A&T State University. In September, a man was shot at the University of Maryland. These are only a few examples of a much larger issue: Campus shootings are very real, and it’s not out of the question that one could occur at GW. As students, it’s our responsibility to read information that the University gives us on these situations and to prepare ourselves on how to evacuate buildings and find shelter. But it’s the University’s responsibility to keep us informed as situations unfold.

Emergency circumstances vary, but perhaps the Federal Emergency Management Agency says it best: Their guideline is that in a critical situation, information is as important as food and water. We’re a generation that has been taught from the unfortunate number of mass shootings around the country that every single report of a shooter must be considered a real threat. And in these emergencies, we need information as the situation unfolds – not just an introduction and conclusion.

We know we can’t always get all the facts immediately. In most of these types of situations, it takes days to uncover all of the information. But at a time when campus is on lockdown, and there’s a legitimate fear of leaving a residence hall, study spot or restaurant, we shouldn’t hear radio silence.

Melissa Holzberg, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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