Bursting the Georgetown Bubble: The Voice investigates public safety awareness among Georgetown students

September 11, 2014

Christina Libre

Maximiliano Astruc (COL ‘16) was walking home from Lauinger just after midnight on an icy Monday morning in January, after spending hours going over stock pitches and poring over different possible scenarios in preparation for a make-or-break interview with Goldman Sachs’ Investment Banking division. The last thing on his mind was his personal safety. A regular at Lau during the early hours of the morning, Astruc had taken his normal route past LXR heading down toward his house on 33rd and M St. countless times at this time of night. Tonight, against all expectation, would be different. 

Three hooded figures approached Astruc as he trudged through snow and ice on N St., but no alarm bells went off in his head—after all, his experience in Georgetown had never included immediate danger. 

“They turn around and there’s a gun and the first thing they shout is, ‘Give us everything you’ve got,’” Astruc said as he recounted the events of the night.

Battling his utter shock, Astruc was forced to hand over his backpack—full of textbooks, interview notes, and his computer—before the perpetrators also took his phone and the money out of his wallet. “They just took the dollars and they threw my wallet and said, ‘Well, go get it, but before you leave, give us your shoes.’”

Disbelief clouded Astruc’s thoughts as he returned home, shoeless, through the cold, his perception of safety at Georgetown forever changed. Before this incident, Astruc held the same belief of a majority of Georgetown students that students are relatively safe on and around campus. 

Nestled upon the revered Hilltop, sitting comfortably among $5 million-townhouses, designer stores, and top-tier dining establishments, Georgetown’s public safety concerns are not representative of the District. In our prime position overlooking downtown Washington, D.C., Hoyas are thought to be well-shielded from the common breaches of public safety endemic in metropolitan areas. As we take a high level of safety for granted, we remain complacently unaware of proper safety procedures should an emergency occur—in this case, ignorance is not bliss. 

According to a survey conducted by the Voice’s blog Vox Populi last week, when asked to rate how safe they feel on Georgetown’s campus and in the Georgetown neighborhood, with one being extremely safe and five being not safe at all, a poll of 75 students responded with an average rating of 2.04 on campus and 2.48 off campus.  With both of these average ratings remaining below three, it is clear that the majority of students do not view the University and the surrounding area as particularly threatening locales.

 “The campus environment has a feeling of security to it. There are almost always people around, and I have never felt in danger or uncomfortable,” wrote one survey respondent.

While this perception of public safety issues in Georgetown could reflect the infrequency of crimes that involve bodily harm or the threat of bodily harm—known as “crimes against person”— it also lulls students into a false sense of security. As a result, the ever-busy Hoya student body doesn’t make time to educate itself about public safety procedures. As Astruc was made keenly aware of on that frosty January night, potential threats to safety are a distinct possibility. In the Spring of 2014 alone, Georgetown experienced a bomb threat in the Leavey Center, a ricin scare in McCarthy Hall, multiple email alerts about armed individuals close to campus, among a number of other public safety threats.

In an interview last April with Voice reporter Caitriona Pagni, Chief of Police and Director of Public Safety Jay Gruber explained that students must acknowledge the reality of potential danger in Georgetown area and prioritize educating themselves on public safety issues: “I think students get into this bubble where everything is safe here, but I think students need to understand that there is always risk around us. Students have to take a stake in their own safety to mitigate their own risk,” said Gruber.

“A lot of people actually have this idea that Georgetown’s a really safe place. A lot of my friends thought I was joking [when I told them about the crime]. It took them an actual while, like, ‘Wait was that actually you? Did that really happen or did you just make it up?’” Astruc said when describing his friends reactions to the robbery. 

According to Gruber, the first step students should take in developing awareness for dealing with possible emergency situations is becoming familiar with not only the security measures put in place by the University, but also the resources open to students to either prepare themselves for or report a crime. As per the Department of Emergency Management and Operational Continuity website, two main alert systems are in place to ensure student safety in times of emergencies: HOYAlert and the Campus Alert System. HOYAlert sends texts and emails to students, faculty, family members, and staff who have given their cellphone number or email address to the service in the event of an emergency. The University uses HOYAlert to alert the campus on a wide variety of events ranging from incidents as serious as an active shooter on campus to those as simple as a campus closure due to snow. The Campus Alert System, which is also known among students simply as the steam whistles, signal any kind of outdoor emergency necessitating members of the Georgetown community to take shelter inside, such as a tornado approaching campus.

While messages coming from HOYAlert are tailored to each event and clearly report to the student what kind of emergency situation is taking place, that doesn’t mean that students understand them, particularly the use of the steam whistle blasts. When asked what the steam whistle alarm meant, 56 percent of students answered incorrectly. Though relatively uncommon, emergencies that require usage of the steam whistles are serious in nature. An incorrect response to the alarm could be fatal.

In addition to these systems, DEMOC and the Department of Public Safety have made available various resources that are aimed at keeping students safe and aware of potential threats. DEMOC sponsors preparedness efforts and presents emergency response guidelines both on their website and through on campus events, such as Tuesday’s “After the Fire” event in which two victims of a Seton Hall dormitory fire in 2000 were invited to share their story and emphasize the importance of being aware of safety procedures.

While DEMOC focuses on larger crises, DPS works mainly to prevent, deter, and respond to crimes in the Georgetown community. With comprehensive descriptions of campus services on their website, DPS provides plentiful information on how to stay safe on and off campus.

Despite the quantity of resources and information readily available to students, there remains a disconnect between the departments and students. Students’ education about public safety is the responsibility of both the student and the administration, but since DEMOC and DPS are the distributors of this information, the onus falls on them to utilize effective methods to reach students—which is easier said than done. Gruber admits that it is difficult to grab the attention of students, but attests that for their part, students need to take on a more active role as well.  

“We really count on students to take advantage of what has been put in place… Students are so bombarded with information and … are so involved in so many different activities that sometimes it gets lost in the mix, but just doing small things like signing up for LiveSafe, the new app we have, going to HOYAlert and putting in your email address and your text-enabled device, your cellphone number, those little things will make a huge difference in preparedness for our students,” said Gruber.

Director of Residential Education Ed Gilhool echoes these sentiments and supports the notion that students must take time to invest in their own safety education.

“Although Residential Living works hard to keep students informed about safety procedures, as community members, we all share a personal responsibility to [educate] ourselves about campus safety and emergency response,” Gilhool wrote in an email to the Voice.

Gruber also stressed the importance that the administration be consistent in educating students, as each new crop of incoming students are unfamiliar with the area and the school’s safety procedures.

“I think that with general safety procedures we all need to do a better job from the university leadership standpoint. I think that we need to remember that our students turn over every four years and we need to continually educate our students on what it means to live in a city,” Gruber said last April. 

 In attempting to achieve an appropriate standard, DPS has been modifying their approach to reaching out to students, adapting to the more prominent usage of personal technology and social media by Hoyas. The LiveSafe mobile application that was introduced this year allows students to report safety-related incidents to both the Department and other users of the app directly from their smartphones. While DPS’ presence on Facebook is practically negligible, with only 18 “Likes” and the most recent update a post from November 19, 2013, DPS makes better use of other media by Tweeting safety tips and information several times a week to its 267 followers using the Twitter handle @GtownDPS. It also rolled out an Instagram account (gu_police) on September 9 dedicated to a similar purpose. 

“Social media presence for me is important … I Tweet probably two or three times a week with tips, with information, with other things that I think the community needs to know about and how they can help protect themselves,” said Gruber. 

DEMOC formerly utilized Twitter as a common form of disseminating alerts and other safety information to its 246 followers, with Tweets coming multiple times a week back in 2013, but 2014 has only seen three Tweets—all of which were warnings of HOYAlert testing. 

Although DEMOC posts timely information for events on its Facebook page, with 125 “Likes”, these posts are reaching a very narrow margin of the student population. The Emergency Management blog that their webpage links to also does little to provide adequate information to students, as its most recent entry was on December 20, 2012. As a result, students don’t have knowledge of DEMOC’s existence—of those polled, 85 percent did not know of DEMOC. Regardless, DEMOC also distributes information through avenues outside of social media to promote safety and preparedness.

“DEMOC uses a variety of methods to communicate to the student body, including disseminating information through the Building and Floor Marshal Program, publishing and distributing our ‘Emergency Response Guidelines’ flipbooks, updating and posting Emergency Response Guidelines for students and faculty in each classroom on campus, and working with a variety of student groups to plan for special events on campus,” Director of Media Relations Rachel Pugh wrote in an email to the Voice on behalf of DEMOC.

By improving their student outreach strategies, the University could make essential strides toward realizing a more proactive approach to dealing with safety concerns in the Georgetown community. DPS uses foot patrols, vehicles, and bicycles to keep Georgetown under watch at all hours of the day, but it is impossible for police officers to observe every corner of the community at all times, underscoring the gravity of the lack of student awareness. The University has sufficient resources to aid a victim after a crime has been committed, but a balance of police patrols and students educated on potential dangers would make for a more capable effort to prevent breaches in public safety.

“There are a lot of services in place that help students deal with these sorts of things, but I do not like the fact that they are reactionary. I think they should be proactive and really help prevent them, as opposed to help you cope with them,” said Astruc of his interactions with the University. According to Astruc, the University offered him a large amount of emotional and psychological support, but did not help him replace his stolen goods. 

Wider publicizing of crimes or emergencies when they occur is a large component of making students more aware of safety procedures. Currently, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act requires universities to post information about crimes that have been committed on and near campus. In accordance with the Clery Act, DPS sends campus-wide emails whenever certain crimes take place and assembles an annual crime report that summarizes the number of crimes committed in the area, the types of crimes committed, as well as public safety procedures.

Georgetown satisfies this obligation, but with the number of emails that students receive daily, these alerts can get lost in the shuffle. Gruber hopes that, with the addition of the LiveSafe app, students and other members of the community will be able to receive more accurate and immediate updates on public safety issues. Again, though, delivering on this aspiration relies almost entirely on successful outreach to students. 

“We just had a meeting with University Information Services and our LiveSafe partners [on September 3] to talk about strategies to reach out to our student body, involving a multimedia approach, involving contests, involving other marketing campaigns that are directed to our students, and some marketing campaigns that are directed to our faculty and staff. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly an effort I enjoy and it’s important to us. The reason I’m here is for the safety of the students,” said Gruber of DPS’ plans to encourage use of the new app.

Potential is the key word underlying improvements to Georgetown’s approach to public safety education. With technological advancements and increasingly varied and elaborate marketing efforts on the side of the University, students will have more access than ever to educational resources. But information alone cannot make Georgetown an unbreachable safe haven for its students. Bursting the bubble that surrounds Georgetown is fundamental to establishing a safer community for students and can only be accomplished with effort from all sides.

Additional reporting by Caitriona Pagni

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