November 17, 2009

Raising the alert

The University should use extreme care when alerting community about sensitive crimes.

The stated purpose of University e-mail security alerts is to “change or impact behavior in order to prevent injury or harm and to prevent or reduce the risk of becoming a victim of a crime.” Last weekend’s alert, which reported an incident of alleged sexual assault on the 5600 block of South University Avenue, highlighted the importance of balancing important student concerns when considering whether to issue these warnings.

There is no question that sexual assault is a serious crime, and that the University should consider it a security concern for students. However, sexual assault is also an extremely sensitive issue. Security alerts that broadcast reports of these incidents to members of the community may encourage unfounded speculation. The danger of widespread rumor-mongering is obvious: If the student involved is a member of the housing system, an alert could inadvertently divulge to everyone in a dorm, for instance, the reason why a student is absent. Furthermore, mass e-mails could arouse suspicion about people who are not involved in any way. If a police investigation concludes that the alleged crime did not occur, the University should discourage finger-pointing by informing the community in a follow-up alert.

The University explains on its Community Safety Web page that security alerts are appropriate precisely in cases like sexual assault where rumors can be become widespread. But because last weekend’s alert included so few concrete details—probably out of concern for privacy—rumor and speculation were likely encouraged, not quelled. For example, the alert included only the general location of the incident, which means all apartments and fraternity houses on that street may come under suspicion.

These unfortunate consequences may be justified if the crime indicates there is a genuine risk to students. If so, the University should issue alerts so that students may change their behavior to avoid becoming victims of such crimes. At this point, it’s not clear whether this weekend’s incident posed such a risk. Other serious crimes, such as robberies, should be reported because students who heed the warnings will know to take precautions in the area where the crime occurred. That may not be the case in some incidents of sexual assault.

Again, not all the details about last weekend’s incident are clear; the University may well have responded appropriately in this case. What Saturday’s alert shows, however, is that the University should be especially careful about issuing warnings of sensitive crimes like sexual assault.

— The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and two additional Editorial Board members.