Last weekend, we were shocked and disturbed to learn that shots had been fired here on the Farm. As we all struggle to understand what happened, we must re-examine the safety of our campus and to hold any negligent students, administrators, or security personnel accountable. While this incident raises serious concerns about current safety measures, we must also seize this rare opportunity to explore our own attitudes about issues of race and class.
The shots fired after Blackfest made the issue of public safety instantly more important in the minds of many students. We recognize the hard work and diligence of the campus police and University administrators who make our events safe and enjoyable, but Saturday’s incident demonstrates some room for improvement.
The University is already working to ensure that the event organizers complied with all Level 5 event rules, and there has been no indication that they cut any corners. If evidence emerges to the contrary, those in charge of the event should be held accountable. However, it is possible that the event’s organizers followed all event-planning guidelines faithfully, yet still could not prevent a shooting from occurring. If that is the case, then SAL should revisit its Level 5 event policies to enhance security measures, perhaps by maintaining guest lists and checking IDs. For very large events, SAL and University administrators might also consider opening and subsidizing enclosed venues like Frost Amphitheatre that are easier to secure than open fields or parking lots.
The University should explore these options, rather than simply cancelling community events like Blackfest, because they provide a great deal of value to our campus. It brings together thousands of members of the Bay Area community, from big-name artists to campus organizations. Such events facilitate our interaction with members of the local community and the broader world. It is unfortunate that Saturday evening’s violence overshadows these benefits to the Stanford community, and it would be an overreaction to withdraw support of such events in the future. While we cannot abide by such violence, neither can we permit concern over safety to morph into a ban on large community events.
Communication with the public during a violent incident is another opportunity for improvement. The vast majority of students learned about the incident from a series of text messages sent out on Saturday evening. The AlertSU system is a powerful tool, but its current iteration falls short in two respects.
First, message alerts are often released an hour or more after an incident occurs, which is far too late if the goal is to redirect students away from potentially dangerous environments or situations. Alerts should be sent as soon as possible to warn students and to ensure their safety. One likely cause of this delay is the time it takes to gather descriptive information about the individual(s) responsible. This is unhelpful, however, as the text alert’s primary function is to identify the location and nature of the crime. For students, knowing that shots were fired near the Lagunita parking lot would have been sufficient for them to avoid the threat. A physical description, on the other hand, is useful only in tracking the suspect, a function that is the sole responsibility of law enforcement. By removing superfluous information from text alerts, the authorities can provide students with information that is timely and thus actionable.
Second, AlertSU should avoid descriptions such as “dark-skinned male” that can lead students to view large portions of the population — and perhaps their own classmates — with unwarranted suspicion. Even if minority students are not treated differently by their peers in the face of such messages, the alerts can have negative psychological impacts. Knowing that they match a vaguely worded description of a suspect frequently leads to the feeling that others are watching them or are suspicious of their actions. Furthermore, the reminder of culturally-reinforced links between racial and ethnic minorities and criminal activity has been proven to negatively impact self-esteem, an individual’s feeling of belonging, and other aspects of mental health.
Descriptions of suspects are clearly useful in some cases, and we do not believe that police officers should omit them entirely. But such descriptions should only be sent if they are specific enough to implicate individuals rather than entire ethnic groups.
Finally, we encourage students to reflect on your reaction to Saturday’s incident, both immediately after hearing the news and later on, as your thoughts and feelings evolved. Talk with friends about your reaction and your understanding of the situation. We rarely have the chance to raise the level of discourse on campus regarding race, class, and our perception of peers. These issues are important to explore while the incident is still salient for many of us.
As students and administrators continue to analyze what happened last weekend, we should work to ensure that our campus is safe and that such an incident does not happen again. But we must remember that this is also an opportunity to learn how people of different races, backgrounds and viewpoints understand an event that has affected each and every student on our campus.