UT pledges to fix alerts, but more focus needed on preventing danger

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A portrait of Harrison Brown is on display at the University Catholic Center before the start of a memorial Mass in his honor on Tuesday. Brown was killed in a stabbing attack at the University of Texas on Monday. (TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The University of Texas, shaken to its core again by violence and death, has more work to do in improving campus safety. It’s a challenge that requires cooperation of police, administrators and students.

Last week, first-year student Harrison Brown, 19, was fatally stabbed in an attack police say was committed by a fellow student. The suspect, biology junior Kendrex J. White, 21, also is accused of stabbing three other students whose injuries, thankfully, were not life-threatening.

In looking for a motive, police now have focused on White’s mental health problems. He remains in a Travis County jail.

At times like this, we know words fall short in easing the suffering of family and loved ones. We do want to recognize the outpouring of love and support to Brown’s family from the tight-knit community of Graham, which has rallied in grief and celebration of Harrison Brown. By all accounts, Brown was a giving, talented, young man still discovering his professional calling, but leaning toward a career in music – all the while staying firmly planted in his hometown to help care for his ailing father.

Brown’s impact on UT during his short tenure is witnessed by the more than $100,000 donated by friends and strangers who contributed to a fraternity-organized GoFundMe page for Brown’s family, even though Brown never actually joined a fraternity.

Just as UT doubled its efforts following the tragedy a year ago that took the life of another promising first-year student, Haruka Weiser, it must again scrutinize its security and other operations that come with managing a campus the size of a small city of about 80,000 people on any given day, including about 50,000 students. That challenge is compounded by UT-Austin’s location in an urban city approaching 1 million people.

Such efforts should prioritize communication, the identification and seizure of illegal weapons and community policing, including stronger ties with the Austin Police Department. Also, the university must better emphasize student participation in campus safety.

UT police deserve credit for responding swiftly to the stabbing spree as it unfolded last Monday. Police received a call about the incident along Speedway at 1:46 p.m. Two minutes later, officers took White into custody. The public should keep in mind that despite two student deaths in 13 months, UT is not a dangerous campus. Until last year, there had been no slayings on campus for 50 years.

UT officials lagged, however, in getting accurate information to students, creating more fear and panic than was necessary as rumors and false information swelled unchallenged on social media.

American-Statesman writers covering the attacks reported that it took about 30 minutes following the stabbings for most students to get a text message about the incident from the university’s alert system.

That pales by comparison to how some other universities have handled alerts: In November, Ohio State University’s Buckeye alert system sent an alert two minutes after an incident was reported in which a student struck multiple pedestrians with a car before crashing into a campus building. The student was shot and killed by police when he attacked bystanders with a butcher knife and refused to surrender it.

In 2015, the University of California-Merced sent out social media notifications that a stabbing had been reported and warned students to avoid the area. They did that in real time – before the attack had ended.

It’s encouraging that UT President Gregory L. Fenves and UT Police Chief David Carter have acknowledged the communication deficit and pledged to fix it. We will look for such changes in the future.

UT official also confirmed that the weapon – a knife larger than 5 ½ inches — used in the stabbings is illegal under state law to be openly carried — regardless of whether it’s done on a campus or in a city park. That brings up an issue of whether enough is being done by police to spot and seize illegal weapons when they do surface. The knife certainly was noticeable, as one student witness described it as a small machete.

Students, too, have a responsibility to report such sightings and might be in the best position to do so. The focus must be on prevention — and that is everyone’s responsibility.

UT has several tools to help students recognize signs – including mental health issues and excessive boozing — that might lead to dangerous situations.

Chris Brownson, assistant vice president of student affairs and director of UT’s counseling and mental health center, cited the school’s BeVocal bystander intervention program that builds on three steps: recognizing potential harm, choosing to respond and taking action.

“It’s our version of see something, say something,” he said, noting the Homeland Security Department’s popular campaign to fight terrorism through citizen engagement. Brownson said the program aims to change a culture in which students remain silent because “it’s none of my business,” or “someone else will take care it,” or “I will be embarrassed if I do anything.”

In addition to BeVocal — a play on mascot Bevo — the university has a counseling center and a behavior advice line, which can be accessed by phone or online. Those tools focus on getting students help in times of stress or critical incidents. Information can be provided anonymously or not. Those systems when used efficiently allow the university to spot potential danger before it erupts.

All are good tools. Even so no campus is immune to crime. Nonetheless, UT officials would be wise to look at the campus in the context of its location in an urban setting, and thus, unshielded from many of the social ills inherent in large cities, such as homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual assaults and mental illness.

There is a need for greater coordination with Austin police as the boundaries between the campus and the city are more porous than ever.

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