The day before Thanksgiving, a former Erie Community College student walked into a class in progress on the City Campus. The man wasn't supposed to be there, but when the instructor told him to leave, he spewed vulgarities and leaned his shoulder into her upon exiting. Then, in the campus cafeteria, the man made inappropriate comments to two women while sticking his hand down his pants.
College security eventually caught up with the suspect and took him into custody, but the incident left students and professors shaken. It also renewed concerns about how the college communicates with faculty, staff and students during an emergency. Some faculty and staff wondered why they weren't made aware of the suspect's presence on campus, so they could have at least closed the doors to their classrooms or offices and kept him from entering.
But the Nov. 22 case wasn't the only incident of worry. A recent report by a college safety and security task force listed eight incidents within the past year of dangerous or potentially dangerous situations on campus and questioned how the incidents were handled and how information about them was relayed.
The college uses a system called RAVE to send out text alerts to 34,000 registered mobile devices in the event of an emergency or threat on campus. Some faculty and staff said the system is not utilized enough, especially when compared with other area colleges and universities.
Tracy Gast, associate vice president of security at ECC, said the entire Nov. 22 incident unfolded in fewer than 10 minutes and didn't warrant a text message because the suspect was in custody and taken to Erie County Medical Center, posing no active threat to the college.
"We apprehended the suspect within three or four minutes after he had an inappropriate conversation with female students," Gast said.
In another incident, in March, a search for an apparently disturbed man who had taken a naked infant outside in the cold on Route 33 led authorities to City Campus, where they had pinged his cellphone location. Campus security and city police officers combed classrooms, but the college didn't issue any kind of alert on campus, didn't initiate a lockdown procedure and didn't send out an email after the suspect was located in the nearby bus terminal, according to the report.
Canisius College issued a text alert to faculty, staff and students about the disturbed man found at the bus terminal, according to the report.
Gast said he was not aware that Canisius issued a text alert about the man, who was or had been an ECC student. An alert would have been issued at ECC "if we felt he was on campus and was a threat," he said. "If we feel there's an actual threat to faculty, staff and students, we've got a number of systems that we can use to make notification to them."
The primary concern is "how to get information out appropriately within the college," said Colleen Quinn, assistant professor of math and chair of the College Senate.
The alerts need to be done "appropriately so as not to inundate faculty and staff with various things that may not be of importance" while also "keeping things that shouldn't be outside the institution inside," Quinn said. "It's been a back and forth conversation trying to figure out really the sweet spot as far as notification."
Quinn served on the task force, which presented its report this week to the College Senate. The report recommended developing written thresholds for when the RAVE text alerts should be used.
Among other recommendations:
- Install security cameras in stairwells and elevators;
- Update the security web portal of the ECC website to include updated information about incidents and crime on campus and to allow for easy and anonymous reporting of incidents;
- Develop a procedure for reporting student disciplinary issues; and
- Develop a "best practices" plan for disciplinary action and hearings.
David Usinski, associate professor of math, served as chair of the task force, which was organized earlier this year to address longstanding concerns about how information about safety, security and campus crime gets disseminated.
"As an overarching theme, I would say communication, transparency, is big," said Usinski. "The biggest issue is, 'Are there reports issued of incidents on campus, things that we should be aware of?' "
Concerns about safety and security have been heightened on many campuses in the wake of mass shootings in 2015 at Umpqua Community College in Oregon and in 2007 at Virginia Tech.
Some faculty and staff believe that although ECC maintains a good security presence at its three campuses, the college is not prepared or organized enough for potential emergencies. Some point to the dissolution of a state-mandated advisory committee on campus security as evidence that the college wasn't paying close enough attention to the issue.
The committee — which must consist of students, faculty and staff — is now in the process of being reformed. Gast said he will work with the committee "to evaluate the recommendations and put into practice those recommendations we can do."
Other incidents listed in the report involved students who threatened, intimidated or were otherwise belligerent with faculty or staff. The report suggested that the college should be more forthcoming with information about student suspensions or mental health issues.
Gast said that he and his department are not always at liberty to divulge the kind of information some faculty and staff are expecting in situations that involve students.
"We're always walking a fine line trying to make faculty aware of problems and not violating the students' privacy," he said. "I would like to make people more aware of students who shouldn't be on campus, but sometimes that's difficult."
The report also listed some new safety and security initiatives at the college since the task force was created, including a new command center at city campus and a single security phone number for all three campuses.