A female student fled after being grabbed by an unidentified man at a Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve trail the evening of Sept. 4, according to an alert email sent by the Department of Public Safety through the e2Campus Emergency notification system within two hours of the incident being reported.
Director of Public Safety Fr. Joseph Adams, O.S.B. made clear that anyone who feels victimized or believes they are witness to a potential victimization of a community member on campus should never hesitate
to contact campus security.
“You don’t want to be sorry after the fact,” Fr. Adams said. “It’s definitely a better move [to report an incident] than ignoring it and having something go wrong.”
According to Fr. Adams, when an incident like this occurs, Public Safety immediately notifies the state police. Once the state police are involved, a conversation about whether to send a campus-wide alert takes place between Fr. Adams and Bruce Antkowiak, counsel to the college and archabbey and chair of the criminology department.
If an alert is to be sent, it is penned by Suzanne Wilcox English, vice president of admissions, marketing and communications. The message receives its final approval by the president of the college, Br. Norman Hipps, O.S.B., before circulation.
If a more instant alert must be released, such as to prepare for an oncoming tornado, the evaluation process would be much more immediate.
“The policy is to get our public relations people to craft it so it’s properly worded,” Peter Mahoney, chief information officer, said, “and that it’s worded in the best way of not alarming people unnecessarily.”
Information released to the community must be in accordance with the state police and must not hinder or prejudice their investigation.
“We’re going to clear the stuff that we’re going to do initially with the state police,” Antkowiak said, “so that they know what we’re doing and it’s consistent with their investigatory needs.”
Antkowiak explained that, in addition to the importance of alerting the campus and contacting the state police, the focus in a safety situation is on the student or students involved.
“If you have a student who is in a situation of potentially being victimized, our number one concern is that kid,” Antkowiak said.
The well-being of the student is provided by securing their anonymity, making sure they are safe, giving them medical attention if needed and offering them counseling. Once the safety of the potential victim is established, concern then turns to the incident’s impact on the campus at large, which is addressed through the e2Campus Emergency Notification system of email and text alerts sent to students, faculty and staff. Because not everybody on campus is signed up for the alert system, Fr. Adams made the decision to forward the email to the whole campus community.
Mahoney, who forwarded the email, said he is working on increasing the number of subscribers by making the process easier.
“We’ve made it very clear now on the Portal,” he said of the link to the subscription webpage. “We’ve moved it up from where it was so it’s very prominent right on the home page.”
e2Campus reported on Sept. 6th that SVC had 961 users signed up to on the program. As of Sept. 18th, that number had increased to 1,207.
An email was sent by Mahoney the week following the incident with instructions on how to subscribe to the system. Although the program is voluntary, he highly encouraged the SVC community to subscribe.
In addition to subscribing so that the alert comes to a cell phone and school email, Mahoney said it is possible to add a second preferred email, such as a personal Gmail that is checked more regularly, and a cell phone of a parent to keep them informed of campus emergencies.
There is also an option to choose what alerts you want to receive, such as “Emergency Alert,” “Lighting Alert” and “School Closings.” Antkowiak said it is important for those who are already subscribed to e2Campus to review their account in case their cell phone or email changed and needs updated.
The alert system is only one aspect of Saint Vincent security. According to Fr. Adams and Antkowiak, the state police regularly pass through campus at least once a day as part of their patrol route, a safety measure that has been in effect the last few years.
Additionally, Public Safety has routine patrols throughout the day that drive around both the main campus and the outskirts of campus, including the wetlands, the Gristmill and Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve.
Antkowiak said that another protection policy that has been in place for a long time is Public Safety’s readiness to escort community members anywhere on campus, citing the school’s emphasis on hospitality.
One new security measure, according to Fr. Adams, is the addition of cameras at the entrance booth, the entrance to Beatty County Road and on the construction access road. These installations, which were in development before the Sept. 4 incident, are expected to be complete within the next month.
Antkowiak explained that while surveillance cameras all over campus may appear useful in theory, they would be impractical as a preventative measure.
“It’s great having them there, but if you’re not really monitoring them, all you’re doing is creating evidence for after the fact, rather than being able to provide present-day, real-time security,” Antkowiak said.
There are also discussions to add safety call boxes at the nature reserve as a result of this incident. However, Fr. Adams explained that across the industry, those types of safety call boxes are being used less due to the prevalence of cell phones.
Antkowiak, Fr. Adams and Mahoney all agreed that prudence and sensibility are the most important tools to keep a person safe.
“You just have to keep learning as society evolves to protect yourself and be aware of your surroundings,” Mahoney said. “You can’t just have an assumption now that everywhere and anything you do is going to be safe.”
While Saint Vincent does not have a history of violence, according to Antkowiak, it is still imperative to take safety seriously. He emphasized the importance of not walking alone and not taking safety for granted.
“Last time I checked, this is not the Garden of Eden,” Antkowiak said. “We live amongst some pretty bad, pretty dangerous people, not just in this area, in every area. We’re living in a crazy part of the twenty-first century.”
Public Safety encourages all students, faculty and staff members to contact them for assistance on campus or to report an incident.
In the event of an immediate emergency, call 724-805-2911.
For non-emergency responses – such as a safety escort, vehicle lock outs or jump starts – call 724-805-2311.
Photos: John Wojtechko