Automated emergency notification systems have made it easy for campus leaders to send out mass messages to their communities in the event of an emergency. But a recent mistake by University of Miami officials highlights the risks inherent in such systems as well—and the need for officials to think carefully about the content of the alerts they send.
UM’s Emergency Notification Network exists to alert students and faculty of a safety threat—an oncoming hurricane, for example, or maybe an armed gunman. But the text message that went out to the UM community on the evening of Dec. 5 contained a different sort of warning:
“Black male on campus,” UM proclaimed. “Wearing black and white tennis shoes, white shirt w/blk writing, black shorts.”
The message was related to a stolen laptop computer, but, in an apparent administrative glitch, UM’s text alert made no mention of an actual crime. That left some to wonder whether UM was suggesting that being a black man on campus was in and of itself somehow suspicious or wrong—otherwise, why would anyone need the urgent heads-up about it?
UM sent out a separate (but also incomplete) warning via Twitter that read like an empty template: “DESCRIPTION with WEAPON by LOCATION,” it stated.
The mistakes led to raised eyebrows—and plenty of jokes at UM’s expense—across the social media world.