Campus Safety: Alert Carolina controversy

Orange County News

CBS 17 is sharing this story through a partnership with UNC’s Media Hub

Kelly Hogan was about to start teaching her Biology 101 class at UNC-Chapel Hill in December 2015 when she and her students received a text alert that there was a suspected gunman on campus.

She had no idea what to do.  She could shut the doors, but her class has several and they don’t lock. She could evacuate her classroom, but what if it’s more dangerous outside?

The only thing she was sure of was that she wasn’t prepared for this.

“This was all very scary,” Hogan said.

It later turned out that the “suspected gunman” was actually carrying an umbrella, but that didn’t calm Hogan’s nerves.

“Ever since Virginia Tech, it’s been on my mind,” she said sitting outside her lecture hall in Genome Sciences building.

It’s not surprising that the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history has stuck with Hogan as it had with others around the nation. Since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, 26 colleges have experienced mass shootings, killing and wounding more than 140 people.

UNC-CH is an open campus; anyone can walk and drive the grounds unchecked. In 2006, a recent graduate drove an SUV into a common gathering area on campus intending to kill people. Nine students were injured.

The numerous gun and vehicle attacks that have struck the nation over the past few years have prompted discussions on how to make campuses a safer environment for students and staff.

“Unfortunately, that’s just the world we live in,” said Riyad Sarsour, a sophomore at UNC-CH, “and it’s sad we have to be extra cautious.”

The university is preparing for this by launching a new safety plan that includes classroom doors that lock from the inside; vehicle barricades in pedestrian walkways; and instruction on how to handle emergency situations.

This initiative started after university officials found that it “became clear that students and instructors didn’t have clear guidance on what to do during emergencies,” said Vice Chancellor of Campus Safety Derek Kemp.

Hogan, in her role as associate dean of instructional innovation, helped craft parts of the safety plan. For her, being an instructor comes with the responsibility of making sure her classroom is comfortable and safe.

“The least we can do is have a plan,” she said.

Journalism adjunct instructor Lee Meredith feels the same way.

“We can feel safe, but we shouldn’t feel impervious,” he said.

Twenty-seven years ago, Lee lost some of his employees in a helicopter crash. Since then, he made a personal choice to take safety seriously, not only for himself, but for everyone he feels responsible for, like his students.

“I’ve been touched by tragedy before,” he said, “so safety is something that I’m not going to ignore.”

Safety has always been an ongoing discussion on campus and this isn’t the first time UNC-CH makes changes to its safety measures. In 2008, the university introduced the Alert Carolina system to notify students of dangers on campus through text message and email alerts. In 2016, the LiveSafe app was created to provide students with a quicker way to contact law enforcement.

The Upgraded Safety Plan

In August, Kemp emailed faculty members to tell them that locks had been installed in more than 200 classrooms across the campus, and that the efforts are ongoing. Larger, auditorium style classrooms were the primary focus, as were labs, studios and seminar spaces. The doors can be locked quickly, with one single-turn operation of the handle.

Kelly Hogan locks the doors of her classroom in Genome Sciences building. New locks have been installed in more than 200 classrooms. (Yakin Ouederni)
Kelly Hogan locks the doors of her classroom in Genome Sciences building. New locks have been installed in more than 200 classrooms. (Yakin Ouederni)

Installing locks in classrooms seems like the simplest solution to preventing an armed individual from entering, bringing up the question of why it hasn’t been done before.

“Oh, that wasn’t a thing?” Sarsour said. “I thought that would’ve been taken care of long ago.”

In addition to the locks, more bollards — posts in pedestrian walkways that prevent vehicles from passing — have been placed in central locations on campus.

New bollards are being installed in different parts of campus. (Yakin Ouederni)

The final part of the safety plan was the creation of a script titled “Classroom Emergency Preparedness” detailing different safety procedures and instructions on what to do if a dangerous individual approaches the classroom. The university suggested faculty read the script to their classes at the start of the semester to give students an understanding of potential courses of action.

Lee recognized the importance of the script, saying it is a reasonable measure that must be taken.

“Reading the script only took five minutes,” he said. “You don’t want something bad to happen and then it’s all regret, second guessing and ‘why didn’t we do this or that.’”

But Lee may have been in a minority. After reading the script to her class of 243, Hogan sent a poll to her students asking for the number of other classes in which an instructor discussed safety procedures. One hundred ninety-five students responded “none.”

“I don’t know what that is. I never heard of it,” Sarsour said when asked about the script.

Putting that plan in action

Walk the hallways of many classroom buildings, and you’ll see doors propped open. At the Kenan-Flagler Business School, one student said that some teachers close doors but never lock them. In one classroom in the Hanes Art Center, a sign saying, “Keep Unlocked” hangs on a classroom door.

“I need to keep my doors open. Students are always moving in and out,” Hogan said. “I would only lock them in an emergency situation. But at least I have that option now.”

Meanwhile, there have been growing concerns surrounding the Alert Carolina System. Students have complained that important alerts were not being sent out on time, risking the safety of those on campus. When senior Rose Vigil was attacked on campus last December, an Alert Carolina message was sent to students 50 minutes later. Her attacker was still at large during that time and students were unaware of it.

While there remains room for improvement, the university’s efforts signal that campus is better prepared for emergency situations.

“There’s no way to protect ourselves from everything,” Lee said, “but we can definitely keep things from being worse.”

Attacks are for the most part unexpected. The new safety measures are a step toward making students feel secure and placing obstacles in front of attackers to prevent or minimize harm.

“It’s not like the weather that you can forecast,” Sarsour said. “It really just depends on someone going crazy and how prepared we are to react.”

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