Lessons on trust in times of a crisis

30 Sep

Driving to campus yesterday was like driving through a cloud. As it often does on crisp fall mornings, fog blanketed LMU. I found it soothing and hoped it would set the mood for a calm and productive day at the office, one I was hoping would allow me to catch up on a number of outstanding projects. However, one thing I have learned in my six years on the job at LMU, days can get away from you rather quickly for any number of reasons. That was certainly the case by midmorning yesterday.

It all started well. I was able to print 1,500 flyers promoting the upcoming start of the basketball season with Midnight Madness during Homecoming. I started to design a series of newspaper ads for all the Homecoming highlights and accepted a couple of meeting requested and updated my calendar. When my phone rang midmorning, I could see from the caller ID that it was Dean of Administration Lisa Blair-Cox. The call started friendly enough with an easy greeting and an exchange of “how are yous?” Then the soothing, peaceful morning shattered as she revealed the reason for her call. “I wanted to let you know about a situation we are dealing with here,” she said. Lisa went on to tell me that someone had made a threat on a couple of people working at LMU. She said that Director of Campus Safety and Facilities Management Richard Owens was with her and they were convening the crisis management team if I would come down to join them.

Well, there went the morning.

As I left Kresge Hall, I noticed a Claiborne County Sheriff’s department vehicle turning around in the parking lot. In our brief conversation, Lisa had told me that we would see a heightened law enforcement presence on campus.  She was right. As I drove the short distance to the student center I saw a total of five Sheriff’s department vehicles on campus. As I hustled into the President’s office, I knew that the rumors on campus must be already flying. Five police cars would surely spark conversation.

Once, in the office with the rest of the team, Lisa gave an update on what was going on.  She reported that the Sheriff’s department planned to remain on campus until the person who made the threat was in custody or their location could be confirmed in another part of the state. They emphasized that it was safe to continue with our normal activities on campus. That made it easy for the crisis team to make some quick decisions. Dr Dawson was in Chicago for the Duncan School of Law American Bar Association hearing, so after a couple of phone calls with him we had a definite plan of action.

The University was not going on lock down. We would post an announcement on Pathway to explain the added law enforcement presence and we would keep the J. Frank White Academy kids in the academy for lunch. Hoping to keep heads cool on campus, the team decided to disband and return to our normal responsibilities.

When we emerged from the meeting, the President’s office staff told us that calls were already coming in with questions. After crafting a message, I posted it to Pathway, hoping that it would relieve some of the burden on the President’s office. The more people I encountered after the announcement, the more I discovered that the message had not put an end to questions.

A statement I repeated many times yesterday was the simple truth. The University was not on lockdown, because the situation didn’t warrant lockdown. I know that it is easy to get swept into the whirl of rumors and speculation and certainly there were a lot of rumors and speculation afoot yesterday.  I heard everything from bomb threats to actual gunmen on campus. As people continued to question the crisis team’s response to the incident, I started to feel my composure slip and to get frustrated with people. Thankfully, I gave myself a gut-check and didn’t let the frustration get the best of me.

I tried to keep in mind that it is not our job or role in this situation to gather or corroborate information on the incident. Nor was it my responsibility to broadcast largely unsubstantiated reports to anyone. Everyone has a role to play when it comes to public safety. As a campus communicator, I am tasked with following the procedures in place to notify our community in an appropriate time and with an appropriate message providing the information vital to public safety. Likewise, the onus is on the community to seek the information from the proper channels.

The University has an e-2-campus texting program where text alerts are sent in case of emergency. This system is only activated in case of imminent threat, either weather or crime related. The Crisis Team did not use this in this case because the threat was never imminent and we did not want to cause a panic. This incident does offer a good reminder that e-2-campus is service that you have to opt-in to. If you have not registered to receive the e-2-campus alerts, be sure to do so. If the information we are distributing warranted an e-alert, it would have had one. Since it was only posted on Pathway, I had hoped it would have signaled, that yes there was a threat made, but it was not one that should cause panic. Had an imminent, serious threat been in the area, I assure you the University has a plan for that and immediate action would have been taken. Certainly, the community can take their cues from how a message is delivered and what is in the message.

For me, this incident can be summed up with one word. Trust. We as a crisis team had to trust that the Claiborne County Sheriff’s department was providing us with the proper information and guidance when making our decisions. In turn, and I think the breakdown in this situation, the LMU community has got to trust that the administration is doing what the situation demands. The community has got to trust that we would not purposely put anyone in harm’s way. The public is never going to be privy to everything that is happening in a public safety situation. These situations are very fluid and information changes quickly; so it is imperative that the community trusts that information that is being disseminated is credible and pertinent.

Along with trust, it is vital that our community be vigilant about their safety, but also respect that policies and procedures are in place to reinforce their safety. The policies have been tested and rehearsed. It should instill a lot of confidence when officials say these things are being followed.

 

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