A brief safety scare in the Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts department set off a torrent of rumors last Tuesday.
The incident in question, in which a student brought a fake gun to a BECA class as a prop, was resolved after University police determined that the gun wasn’t real and that the student posed no threat, but not before unchecked speculation spread among students and on social media sites.
“We heard that somebody had brought a pellet gun or something,” said BECA major Christina Rosenblatt. “Then some people were saying that some classes were cancelled and we were all wondering why our classes weren’t.”
Paul Sherwin, dean of the College of Liberal and Creative Arts, says that speculation surrounding the event caught him by surprise.
“It’s hard to know how these rumors get started and go off in all kinds of wild directions,” said Sherwin.
“I thought by the end of the day [Tuesday] that everything was resolved. It was obvious that the student involved didn’t intend to harm anybody, in fact couldn’t have harmed anybody,” Sherwin said. “But people seem to have overreacted, which is understandable given the climate today and what happened [at Oikos University] in Oakland last week.”
Though thankful the incident was settled with no real safety threat, Sherwin said that, in retrospect, he could have acted faster.
“My associate dean sent out an email to all the chairs in the creative arts saying that the situation was closed, and we thought that would be enough,” he said “What we didn’t know was that not everybody was going to read it and that it didn’t get across to all the students. Rumors had already started to an extent that we didn’t realize.”
In the current world of social media, where rumors can develop and spread in seconds via sites like Twitter and Facebook, it’s important for students to thoroughly vet the information they receive, said SF State spokeswoman Ellen Griffin.
“We are a community of intelligent, highly educated and tech-savvy individuals who know that before believing or acting on any rumor they encounter, in social media or anywhere else, that they should attempt to verify the information at the source,” she said in an email.
Griffin and Sherwin both credited the University Police Department for the rapid response to the situation, and Griffin pointed out that the University has numerous systems in place to deal with potential emergencies.
“Students should trust that the University would use a variety of communications methods to get the word out as soon as possible,” she said. “One of the most important methods the University would use is the voice/text/email emergency notification system.”
University police are responsible for activating the Emergency Notification System, which has been used this semester to alert students to situations ranging from power outages to flooding.
“The nature of the situation (risk to public safety), duration of the incident, and scale of the incident are some of the criteria assessed for activating the campus wide alert system,” Deputy Chief of University Police Reginald Parsons said in an email.
But given situations like this one, where no campus-wide notifications were sent, Sherwin said it’s imperative for faculty to act quickly.
“This incident has accentuated for me the understanding that I need to do something really rapidly when I sense that there might be a real danger or even just the potential spreading of rumors,” he said.
“In retrospect, I probably should have sent my message earlier.”
Gayle Orr Smith, head of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.