Although both Yale University and Princeton University have similar student and faculty emergency notification systems, they differ on exactly when to utilize them.
At 11:24 p.m. on Friday, March 6, a Princeton University junior saw a man running through campus carting what she said looked like an AK-47, immediately calling Princeton Public Safety, the Daily Princetonian reported. At 11:29 p.m., Public Safety received a second report of similar activity.
Yet for over one hour, most of the Princeton campus remained blissfully unaware of the potential danger. Not until 12:40 a.m., 76 minutes after the initial report of a man with a gun, did Princeton utilize the Princeton Telephone and E-mail Notification System and produce a campuswide e-mail, phone call and text message to students.
But if a similar situation were to happen at Yale, Deputy University Secretary Martha Highsmith said Yale would have handled it differently. Yale, she said, would act quickly using its emergency ALERT system — which sends a text message, phone call and e-mail to all members of the Yale community — to let the Yale community know of a situation, even if the University did not yet have all the facts.
“Giving people a heads-up, even when you do not have full information, is essential,” she said in an interview last week.
A delay in alerting students can have deadly consequences. On April 16, 2006, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University waited more than two hours before sending out an e-mail informing the campus of a shooting in a campus dorm. By the time the University sent out the e-mail, the shooter was already in Norris Hall, where he eventually shot more than 30 people.
Virginia Tech was criticized extensively for taking too long to alert students of the potential danger. It was after this shooting that Yale launched its ALERT system.
Princeton spokeswoman Cass Cliatt said in an e-mail to the News that the reason it took over an hour to send out the alert was because authorities were working to determine whether the threat was credible.
“We weigh the consequences of all potential actions — including the potential to inflict emotional harm and the true likelihood of physical harm — when assessing a potential threat and the appropriate response,” she said.
As it happened, there was no actual threat at Princeton on March 6. According to a statement by the Princeton Borough Police, after receiving the text message from the University a freshman, who earlier in the night had run to a friend’s room to show the friend his “imitation/replica AK-47,” realized he might be the gunman to whom the message was referring. The freshman called the police and at 1:20 a.m. an “all clear” message was sent out to the Princeton community.
Highsmith acknowledged that it is a judgment call trying to balance a speedy response with accurate information.
“A quick response that is false and serves to alarm people is not helpful,” she said. “Nor is a delayed response while you’re gathering every bit of data.”
But were a similar incident to happen at Yale, Highsmith said Yale would likely send out an ALERT saying “there’s this serious situation on campus; when details are available we will let you know.”