In the shadow of the Boston Marathon bombing, the nation grieves and stands at high alert. Amidst the fear of terrorism, a smaller drama played out at SF State Monday, April 22 — a bomb threat on campus.
The “bomb” turned out to be just an ordinary black shoebox. It is still unknown, and difficult to prove, whether the phone call tip to campus police was intentionally false .
It’s what happened next that has some students at the University outraged.
As the bomb threat was being cleared, a phone call was sent via the University’s Emergency Notification System, alerting SF State’s students that the bomb threat in the Creative Arts Building was a hoax. Similar messages went out via Facebook and Twitter, leaving questions unanswered: Why were the students learning of the bomb threat only after it was neutralized? Isn’t the whole point of the system to alert students to impending danger?
“Still trying to figure out why we weren’t called and/or emailed about this. Some of my friends don’t have (Facebook) so they never would have known,” Michael Forouhari posted, whose Facebook page identifies him as an SF State student. His post was on SF State’s official Facebook page.
Though warnings from the University were posted on Facebook and Twitter while the excitement ensued, the emergency call was made after the all clear was given — not before. The bomb threat was called in around 9 a.m., and the mass student phone messages were sent out at 10:15 a.m.
All over SF State’s Facebook page, students were calling the University’s priorities out of whack.
Forouhari’s Facebook comment received 59 “likes,” but more than 70 people “liked” his next post which started, “With all due respect, you guys really screwed up this morning.” A similar complaint on the SFSU Confessions page had over 400 likes by Tuesday afternoon.
University spokesperson Ellen Griffin said the situation happened fast and no one was in danger inside or near the building due to the efforts of University Police and the San Francisco Police Department.
“The first priority (of the University) was to secure the building and make sure it was safe,” Griffin said.
She then recounted the order of events: the University Police Department received a call about a suspicious package around 9 a.m. Within 10 minutes campus officials sent out messages via Facebook and Twitter to students warning of a bomb threat. The Creative Arts Building was then evacuated and around 9:30 a.m., the police determined there was no threat.
As the situation unfolded, misinformation about the severity of the bomb scare started spreading via social media, Griffin said.
It was the misinformation that prompted the campus to send out an alert via the Emergency Notification System, sending phone messages to every student saying, “The bomb threat at Creative Arts is all clear. Thanks to the UPD and SFPD for the quick response. More info is available, all classes are in session.”
One phone call activated the phone alert, Griffin said. It took just a minute.
By Tuesday afternoon, there were more than 100 comments on SF State’s Facebook page, angry about the timing of the phone warnings — even parents were concerned.
“My son who’s on campus does not know about it and here I am sitting in my office in Oakland on Facebook and I’m aware of it, SMH (shaking my head)…,” Tiffany Muang Saephan posted.
Griffin said that the decision not to use the phone alert system was made by the Emergency Operations Center.
Gayle Orr-Smith is SF State’s emergency preparedness coordinator. Orr-Smith declined to be interviewed, instead directing all interviews to Griffin. Campus police also directed the Xpress to Griffin.
“They have trained work they need to focus on,” Griffin said in response.
Student anger wasn’t just limited to social media. A walk through the Creative Arts Building, where the bomb threat was reported to be, revealed a wealth of students bewildered about the calls.
“A bomb threat is more pressing than a flood,” Adrian Blount, a 23-year-old theater major with classes in the Creative Arts Building said, referring to a February incident when the Creative Arts Building flooded and classes were cancelled for the broadcast, theater and music departments.
Students found out about the flood through the Emergency Notification System. Students were called, texted and emailed to stay away from the Creative Arts Building. Students are all too familiar with how easily they can be notified of danger.
“We got progress even as the water rose, like, every three minutes,” theater design major, Kirsten Royston, 21, said.
But she was taken off guard when she got the phone call about the Creative Arts Building bomb threat.
“It’s good to know the bomb threat I didn’t know about was cleared,” she said.
Both women were worried, since they have classes in the Creative Arts Building.
Blount laughed loudly when asked if she felt safe after seeing the University’s response to the bomb threat.
“No, I definitely felt unsafe,” she said.
SF State President Leslie E. Wong wrote in an email to Xpress that student’s outrage showed a need to change the way they handled bomb threats next time.
“Our internal communication was efficient and direct and we quickly determined that there was no credible danger,” Wong wrote.
But, he added, “Given the feedback that you reference and the desire of our community to have this kind of information, even when first responders have determined that no threat exists, we will be using the Emergency Notification System more for events like this in the future.”
Notably, when the tragedy of the Boston bombing struck, and shortly after a shooting took place on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus killing a campus police officer, Sean A. Collier, students knew about the situation as it developed.
Students got their information through campus-wide phone alerts and social media. MIT’s Facebook page had up-to-date warnings about possible shooters on campus as the situation unfolded, and according to MIT’s student-run newspaper, The Tech, the campus’ alert system warned students to stay home the next morning.
Computer Engineering major Elleen Palencia’s post on SFSU Confessions summed up most of the students’ anger.
“I got the text and the e-mail about it being cleared and I just stared at my phone for a good 3 minutes, wondering why they didn’t alert me about the threat when it was first suspected. I had gotten to school about thirty minutes earlier. What if I had walked in on the detonating bomb?”