Campus returns to normal, reflects on University's response after false bomb threat

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Computer sciences freshman Tyler Corley (left) and biology sophomore Sayde Pihota (right) read updates on the bomb threat from the UTPD text messaging system Friday morning.

Photo Credit: Fanny Trang | Daily Texan Staff

Students and faculty have returned to campus after Friday’s evacuation following a phone-in bomb threat that morning. The University cancelled classes Friday, and events resumed at 5:00 p.m. except for classes.

A man called the University’s general line this morning at 8:35 a.m., claiming he was with Al Qaeda and that bombs had been planted “all over” UT’s campus. He said the bombs were set to detonate in 90 minutes. The University alerted students to evacuate campus seventy-five minutes later, at 9:50 a.m. via text messages, sirens, intercom announcements, computer and TV alerts, and alerts by building managers in their respective campus structures.

UT’s administration said they are confident the campus is now safe.

“We know a great deal of detail about the nature of the phone call,” said UT President William Powers Jr. “We are very confident that the campus is safe.”

Powers said he could not elaborate as to what those details were.

UTPD chief Robert Dahlstrom said bomb threats at UT usually happen multiple times each semester.

“It doesn’t happen that often,” Dahlstrom said. “It’s very rare. I would say several a semester, and that’s just on average.” 

He said the text message reached 69,000 mobile users. But some students felt the alerts were sent out late. Had the threat been real, the detonation moment would have been around 10:05 a.m, giving students less than 20 minutes to evacuate UT buildings and distance themselves.

“I think 9:50 a.m. was way too late to decide they were going to evacuate,” said Daniel Cortte, freshman architecture major.  “It seemed to me like they were more concerned with finding out if it was real.”

Cortte said he knows there were still students in buildings at 10:05.

At a press conference at noon Friday, Powers said the University has a sophisticated crisis management and safety team. The first thing the University does is evaluate whether or not the threat was credible.

“It is easy to make a phone call,” Powers said. “But we could not assure ourselves that this was not a credible threat, and so we thought the prudent thing to do was clear the buildings.”

Powers said if the threat had been of an imminent detonation, the University would have evacuated the campus buildings immediately.

Bob Harkins, head of campus security, said in an interview with The Daily Texan earlier this week that the University has a multitude of options for sending emergency warnings. UT can send emergency broadcasts to local Grande Communications and Time Warner Cable users. The University can also send alerts via email, but Harkins said it takes about 40 minutes to send the email to everyone subscribed.

“We had a chance to unfortunately see how good we were on September 28, 2010 when we had a shooting on campus,” Harkins said. “Within 7 minutes of the first 911 call we had 54 thousand text messages out telling people there was trouble on campus.”

Students can subscribe to text messages online at UTPD’s website. But some students who said they have subscribed in the past said they did not get the messages.

Theater junior Chace Gladden said he did not receive the original evacuation alert text message. He said he was in a classroom where he didn’t have cell phone reception. He said another student who ran in late told the class about the text message. 

“Once we all got outside of the building we started receiving text message alerts, but I only received the follow ups,” Gladden said. 

There was another bomb threat at North Dakota Sate University this morning, which caused a similar evacuation. At the press conference, Powers said he could not say whether the two instances were related, but he did say the investigation team has information on the possibility.

In addition to concern about whether students had enough time to get off campus, there is concern of the way the University handled their statement. In their initial statement, the University said the caller had a “middle-eastern accent”, which some did not think was necessary.

Associate English professor Snehal Shingavi said it was possible for Arab or Muslim students to face bias because of the language used in the University’s statement. He said his office is open if any students needed to come speak to him.

“I want students to know they have access to faculty to help them deal with discrimination and bias they may face on campus,” Shingavi said. “I want to offer help to these students.”

Earlier this week, the University had a series of building evacuations after someone falsely pulled eight fire alarms across campus.

 — Additional reporting by Alexa Ura