May 01, 2017

Students Question Timeliness of Alert After UT-Austin Campus Stabbings

Reporting Texas

The University of Texas at Austin community buzzed with anxiety and uncertainty Monday afternoon, as many students said the university’s emergency text alert system failed to notify them in a timely manner after four stabbings, one fatal, on campus.

University police received a call reporting that a person with a bowie-style hunting knife had attacked someone in the area near 21st Street and Speedway about 1:49 p.m. One person died and three others were injured in separate attacks outside of Gregory Gym before police took a man into custody two minutes after the initial call.

UT Police Chief David Carter later identified the suspect as Kendrex J. White, listed as a junior biology major on the UT online directory.

By early evening, none of the victims had been identified after what university President Gregory L. Fenves described as a “horrific and senseless tragedy in the heart of our campus.”

At 2:14 p.m., 25 minutes after the initial call was made to police, the campus community received an emergency alert text about that incident. By then, many students and employees had turned to social media and local news outlets for information.

Myka Rodriguez, a UT undergraduate student, said she had just left the area where the stabbings occurred and was walking back to her dorm when she began to receive cautionary messages from other students.

“I was like, what? I was just there,” Rodriguez said.

She continued to receive group messages from friends before turning to Twitter for more information.

“I was actually sitting, looking at my phone, waiting to get the alert that said something was happening, and it wasn’t until about 20 minutes [later] that I got something from the UT police about what had happened,” Rodriguez said. A number of students criticized the university’s response through social media posts.

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Carter defended the timetable for sending the campus-wide alert after officers had been called to the scene.

“In this particular case, the individual was taken into custody,” the police said, “so we understand that while people are concerned or sharing information back and forth about what may or may not have happened, the situation was resolved very quickly.”

He added, “The university tries to put out information as quickly as possible so people will know. But there’s a difference between putting out information to help people understand and alleviate their fears and then also putting out an emergency notification.”

In an email to the UT-Austin community late Monday night, however, Fenves acknowledged that “many students and parents are frustrated with how long the university took to notify them of today’s attack. I understand those frustrations, and I am committed to faster notification in the future.”

Monday’s incident came days after UTPD sent out an emergency alert text almost an hour following a drive-by shooting that occurred near campus. The first line of the text stated “Shots Fired” before explaining at the end of the message that the situation was contained and did not present a threat to the campus community. The victim, who was not injured, knew the suspect in that shooting, police said.

Rumors of additional threats swirled around campus Monday afternoon. They heightened with social media reports of a banner hanging from a bridge connecting the Belo Center for New Media to another Moody College of Communication building. The banner displayed the words “tuition pays for bombs,” Although there was no official evacuation ordered by the university, administrators and faculty encouraged students to leave the Belo center and the Jesse H. Jones Communication Center until police pronounced the buildings safe.

During the afternoon news conference, Carter said the banner appeared to have no connection to the stabbings. About 4 p.m., Fenves sent an email stating that all classes and scheduled events would be canceled for the rest of Monday afternoon and evening. Some buildings remained closed because of the continuing police investigation.

The university sent out an additional campus-wide alert email shortly before 7 p.m., stating that rumors of additional threats near campus were unfounded.  “We continue to work closely with the Austin Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety to further investigate any rumors,” the email read. “Thus far, we have not found any of the incidents to be credible.” As a precaution, the university police said it would increase patrols of campus Monday night alongside the Austin Police Department and the Department of Public Safety.