Campus safety measures revisited after SUNY Canton, high school incidents

SUNY Canton authorities announced on Oct. 25 that the suspect involved in a shooting threat made against the campus had been apprehended.

Alexis Vazquez, the primary suspect in the threat, had allegedly made threatening statements on the social media outlet Yik Yak that were reported to Canton University Police. Vazquez, of Brooklyn, was arraigned by the Honorable Gary L. Favro on federal charges in Plattsburgh. Vazquez is currently in the custody of the U.S. Marshall Service pending bond. The investigation into the statements is under the direction of agents from Homeland Security Investigations, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, in cooperation with the New York State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigations. If convicted, Vazquez faces a maximum sentence of five years, as listed under 18 U.S. Code Section 875.

Additionally, a high school student in Washington State, Jaylen Fryberg, opened fire on his school cafeteria on Friday, Oct. 24, killing one person and injuring four others before turning the gun on himself.

With both threats and shootings in school settings on the rise nationwide, especially over social media such as Twitter or Yik Yak as mentioned above, both Oswego State University Police and Residence Life and Housing officials have put policies in place to ensure the safety of both students as well as university staff. ResLife staff, including both resident assistants and hall directors, are given emergency response training for situations ranging from a fire emergency to a situation such as a shooter on campus. In a situation in which there is an active shooter on campus, both UP and ResLife have stressed the importance of maintaining student safety above all else.

Since the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, UP have seen an increase in both state and federal mandates for preparedness for emergency situations. In an interview, University Police Chief John Rossi stated that emergency action protocols have been outlined on the state and federal level, as well as within the local Oswego community.

“This policy was first disseminated by the Department of Criminal Justice Services in Albany shortly after the massacre at Virginia Tech, and has since been modified and adapted accordingly as shooter situations have developed over time,” Rossi said.

These protocols are kept confidential but are specific for as many potential situations as possible. Rossi acknowledged that different protocols exist depending upon an assailant’s weapon, as well as if there are one or multiple shooters on campus.

ResLife staff emergency training was described by Richard Kolenda, the assistant vice president of Residence Life and Housing, as a “comprehensive” program, including a video on active shooters.

UP takes threats made to students on campus seriously. Risk assessment techniques have been distributed by both the FBI as well as the Department of Justice, and UP has guidelines in place to analyze the potential risk of a threat made to students on campus. UP examines each threat on a case-by-case basis, but take any threat made to students or staff seriously. They have also developed an advanced tactics unit, which is trained to handle emergency situations ranging from natural disasters to a campus shooter in greater depth than standard officers. These officers are trained to react quickly and tactically to emergency situations.

In a situation in which there is an active shooter on campus, Rossi said,“There is only one way [for police] to react, and that is to neutralize the threat immediately.”

In the event that a threat is made using social media, such as Yik Yak, the legal infrastructure to trace the source of an otherwise anonymous post has been in place for several years. While the privacy policies of social media outlets protect them, and the user, from police mining information from their servers, law enforcement officials can obtain a search warrant to gather information about the person that posted the threat. This includes the Internet Protocol (IP) address, which identifies the specific machine that a threatening post originated from. With this information, authorities are usually able to gather information sufficient to make an arrest.

“Making a threat on social media is no different than leaving your fingerprint at a crime scene,” Rossi said. “Historically, social media administrators have been cooperative with law enforcement in investigations related to shooting threats.”

Despite the prevalence of social media evidence in shooting cases, especially in the case at SUNY Canton, UP does not actively monitor students’ social media, at this time. This is primarily due to certain legal protections given to online users. According to a Department of Justice guide published in 2011, law enforcement cannot directly view the correspondence made by users, which is protected under the Electronic Communications and Privacy Act.

“There’s a difference between freedom of speech and yelling ‘Fire!’ in a crowded movie theater,” Rossi said. “Viewing electronic correspondence requires a federal subpoena, which requires specific evidence to obtain. The exception to this is communications, which may be involved in acts of domestic terrorism, which can be obtained under the Patriot Act.”

Social media has become widespread since its popular inception with Facebook in the early 2000s. What is unique about Yik Yak, a smartphone app in which students can post anonymously in a “feed” and has become popular on many college campuses, is the element of secrecy it provides to users. Students feel that the anonymity of Yik Yak makes those making these threats feel safe.

“If people are searching for a means to lash out, they’ll do it on an anonymous social network like Yik Yak,” sophomore Anna Jimenez said.

Some students expressed the belief that authorities should take a more active role in monitoring social media outlets, but the widespread use of this media makes it nearly impossible to monitor each individual user.

While UP does everything in their power to prevent threats to the campus, they rely on student reporting in the case of social media activity. Rossi expressed his trust in the Oswego State student body to come forward with information regarding dangerous activity in the campus community.

Federal mandates under the Jeanne Clery Act require that UP warn students when “an institution determines that a crime for which it must report statistics – such as a homicide, sex offense or robbery – presents a serious or continuing threat to students and employees.” Crimes which may be brought to the attention of UP through confidential or privileged means are not subject to Clery Act reporting in situations where the reporting may bring further harm to the victim.

Warnings for Oswego State students are made through the NY-Alert system, and may also be broadcast through WTOP-10 or other forms of media. An amendment to the Clery Act demands that authorities alert their students in a “timely manner,” though what constitutes this is not specifically outlined and is, more or less, at the discretion of local or state authorities. Rossi hinted that issuing a public warning presumptuously may create unnecessary panic in students, but assured that in a situation in which students may be in danger a warning would be issued promptly.

Despite the frequent broadcast of shooting threats in popular media, Oswego State has not received threats of this nature to date. According to Rossi, the most frequent crimes committed on campus are petty theft and criminal mischief, usually destruction of property. UP strives to keep the residents of Oswego State safe, and campus law enforcement has a zero-tolerance policy for threats made against the campus community. Students are advised to keep their doors locked and valuables secure.

Protocols for students in shooter situations can be found on the Oswego State website. Students are advised to lock their doors, block their windows, and remain in their dorm room or another safe location unless directed to do so otherwise by ResLife staff or UP officers.  In the case of a shooter, students should remain hidden and quiet, preferably behind heavy cover such as a thick wall. If possible, students should try to remember any details about the shooter – physical characteristics, type of weapon and number of assailants can prove to be vital information in the UP response to a shooter situation. Students are also advised to program the contact information for UP into their phones, as 911 lines may be jammed in certain emergencies.

Above all, students should remain safe, keeping out of sight and quiet. If confronted directly by a shooter, students should be cooperative. Demands or questions should be responded to quickly and concisely. If a shooter demands money or valuables, they should be given up without struggle. If it is absolutely necessary, such as in an act of self-defense, online emergency procedures suggest to “consider acting with others to overpower the shooter if the option presents itself. Use any weapon that is available to you.” This should, however, be taken only as a last resort.

If a student witnesses dangerous activity, or has seen messages that may be a cause for concern on social media, they are encouraged to contact ResLife staff or UP as soon as possible. Law enforcement officials must respect anonymity in reporting, if requested, though police reports usually need to be filed in person.

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