Students should never have to choose between going to school and potentially compromising their safety, on the one hand, or skipping class and missing out on exams and participation marks on the other.
On Oct. 25, 2016, however, many MacEwan University students were forced to make that decision after someone threatened on social media to “shoot up” the school. The threat was made early in the morning on the app Chillabit, where university students can post anonymously.
MacEwan released a statement regarding the security threat shortly after 9 a.m. — hours after most students had found out about the situation through their peers on social media.
“At this point (Edmonton Police Service) is continuing to determine the source of the post and the seriousness of the threat,” the statement read, saying classes would continue as normal, as the university was not locked down.
The university also shared information on its social media channels around the same time, with its Facebook alert receiving over 690 shares.
MacEwan’s seemingly delayed response to a potential emergency situation led to a major outcry from students.
Arielle Briand is a student in her fifth year of study at MacEwan, who first learned of the threat on Facebook around 6:30 that morning.
“Initially, I didn’t really think much of it,” she said. “I hadn’t heard anything from the university, so I thought maybe it was whatever — it wasn’t a big deal.”
After she shared the screenshot of the threat with some of her friends, however, Briand started to question the legitimacy of the post.
“Most of my friends were scared,” she said. “Talking amongst my peers … I got kind of nervous and worried about it, and started questioning whether or not I should come to school.”
She, like many other students, decided to stay home that day.
Some people, however, took the threat less seriously.
Dane Naidu, a student at NAIT, was one of the first people who responded to the original post on Chillabit.
“I thought it was a joke, because usually people on (Chillabit), they joke a lot,” he said.
Naidu works night shifts, which is why he was awake to see the original post, which was eventually taken down.
“When I woke up after getting home, I (saw), like, 15 people texted me or sent me messages: ‘Hey, this is going to be a big thing — people are scared to go to school,’” he said.
Fortunately, the threat was never realized, and the 19-year-old MacEwan student who created the original post was promptly charged with one count of uttering threats.
Despite the false alarm, many MacEwan students were still unimpressed with how the situation was handled.
“The thing I’m most upset about is that I found out on Facebook, and not from the institution,” said Briand. “In my head, MacEwan could’ve sent out an email (much earlier). I know they can’t make a big deal of something that isn’t confirmed or for sure, but it would’ve been better for me to find out from the institution.”
Students were also curious as to why MacEwan’s emergency alert text messaging system wasn’t used. Raymond Boudreau, MacEwan’s director of security services, indicated that a text would have reached only 37 per cent of students, as people have to sign up for the program in order to receive alerts.
Danika McConnell, president of the Students’ Association of MacEwan University (SAMU), also noted that the system is to be used only in dire emergency situations — if students had to evacuate campus, for example.
McConnell was off campus on the morning of Oct. 25.
“I found out (about the threat) in an unfortunate way, which was through social media outcries from students,” she said. “I had a lot of students telling me they felt unsafe, and that’s a nightmare.”
McConnell said students’ main concerns stemmed from uncertainty about the situation as a result of a delayed response.
Boudreau, however, said the situation was handled properly.
He said security services was first made aware of the threat by Edmonton Police Service (EPS) around 3:30 in the morning. Security services received an update from police around 5:30 a.m., and they were told to increase security on campus, as the threat could have been legitimate.
By then, however, many students had already seen the Chillabit post, and concerns were quickly spreading on social media.
The original poster of the threat was also active on social media, asking Reddit users for advice on how to handle the situation. The poster wrote that the shooting threat was a joke made in “a state of fatigue,” and said he explained the situation to the head of campus security over the phone.
Responding before the news had spread on social media, however, would have been difficult, as Boudreau said the visibility and shareability of information online is part of the nature of social media.
“The Edmonton City Police contacted us back just after 5 in the morning. The fear had already been generated. Regardless of what I or what anybody would say, that fear was going,” Boudreau said.
“So I’m faced with a situation: do I try to put the energy and the resources to managing that fear, or do I put all my resources and energy into making sure this individual does not come to our campus and cause an issue? I chose the latter.”
The day after the incident, Boudreau stood behind his decision to choose to manage the security of the campus over the fear of its students.
“In this situation, I don’t think I would have changed anything,” he said. “The information I gave the (crisis communications) group that actually oversees any emergency was based on the best advice, experience, and decision-making I have based on the knowledge that I have been given of the event.”
“I had a lot of students telling me they felt unsafe, and that’s a nightmare.”
While MacEwan’s security team is constantly working on preventative initiatives for crisis situations, Boudreau said most security threat scenarios can’t be predicted.
Still, the event can be used as a learning opportunity, and McConnell hopes the university takes advantage of that.
“My expectations are very high for down the road if something like this were to happen again: we would know exactly how to handle it and how to communicate with our students, our staff and our faculty, and the external community,” she said.
“This is a situation that made students scared for their well-being, and safety is above all else,” said McConnell. “MacEwan’s first pillar is ‘students first,’ and I think safety is at the core of that.”
Cover photo by Matthew Jacula.