THE MAGAZINE

Hard Lessons

By Laura Spadanuta

Owczarski says that in these situations it is important to keep information updated, “because of the world in which we live in; people tweet, people Facebook, rumors go rampant.” He says that if 30 minutes goes by with no news, he will repeat what has been said or confirm that police are continuing to investigate.

For example, in December 2011, a campus police officer was shot on the Virginia Tech campus following a routine traffic stop. The police sent out the initial emergency notification when the shooting was confirmed and then quickly updated it when they knew the shooter had been spotted in a parking lot, says Owczarski. He says he then took over the communications to flesh out the warnings and information being delivered to the community. The emergency response plan was implemented, and the school was in a state of emergency response until police could confirm that the gunman was no longer a threat to the community.

Every situation will require different directives. In a potential or actual active-shooter situation, for example, the message might be to shelter in place, which simply means not to leave the building you are in. That was the case after the December shooting, though some media called it a “lockdown.”

Owczarski says that “lockdown” is a word that his school does not use, because it’s probably impossible to accomplish on a campus the size of a small municipality.

By contrast, it is feasible to advise anyone on campus to shelter in place, though that has its limitations as well. “It is not enforceable, and it might even be counterproductive if the people are in the same building as the shooter when they receive the warning,” says Owczarski.

Communicating is challenging when you have maybe a minute or two to make a decision about what to say, he says. And part of the challenge is that things are reported over Twitter and rumors and facts are often confused in the heat of a moment. “Yet what litigation and lawsuits will often say is you’re better off saying something, anything, and then reacting second. And that’s one of the great challenges that all of higher education in all municipalities face,” he says.

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