Another semester, another bomb threat

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Wednesday night, I reacted to a safety alert email sent out by the UT administration about a “non-specific” bomb threat with the same nonchalance the students sitting around me in The Daily Texan office did: I shifted my computer on my lap and looked up to confirm that they too had received the email. Then we got back to work, more interested in tweeting out the news story than speculating on the severity of the situation.

The Daily Texan office admittedly may not be the best gauge of student reactions. (The paper’s news department, after all, has to rush to the office to cover a campus bomb threat no matter how panicked the rest of campus may be.) But when I left the office shortly after, the students on campus didn’t seem to be running around in a state of frenzy either. UT student Alice Lazare, a government and women’s and gender studies freshman, may have summed up the student reaction best when she tweeted, “Another semester, another bomb threat,” moments after the email was sent out.

It’s difficult to find hard data about the student reaction to campus safety threats. According to Jane Bost, associate director of the UT Counseling and Mental Health Center, “no specific data is available” about the number of students the Center sees after safety alerts on campus compared to the number that visit the Center regularly. And while “all of [CMHC’s] clinicians are trained to handle anxiety issues,” the Center has yet to develop any specific protocol for helping students deal with anxiety issues related to campus safety threats. I don’t mention this to suggest that they should develop a specific protocol, but because I believe this (admittedly anecdotal) evidence suggests that threats of mass violence don’t cause the panic we instinctively feel they should.

What to make of the campus’ lackluster response to threats of violence? For one, it’s a reminder that these attacks (and threats of these attacks) are now fairly commonplace. According to a 2008 study in the Journal of American College Health, which surveyed campus police chiefs across the nation about firearm incidents, a safety incident involving a firearm had occurred on 35 percent of campuses in the prior five years. I was unable to find data about the prevalence of bomb threats on college campuses, but the wave of bomb threats to university campuses across the U.S. — including the UT campus in September 2012 — made American college students (especially those at public universities, which all four of the colleges directly targeted in the bomb threats were) hyper-aware of the possibility that the next day might bring “increased police presence” on campus due to a security threat.

The frequency of these threats makes a strong student response impractical. And panicking in response to them indulges a potential bomber or shooter’s desire for attention, encouraging others to emulate their behavior.

And yet, on a less practical level, I find myself wanting the students on this campus to react more strongly to even empty threats on our campus. After all, UT has a history of mentally ill individuals committing acts of mass violence, as in 1966 when UT student Charles Whitman killed 17 people with a rifle from the top of the UT Tower. Those who threaten the campus with violence today, by calling in a bomb threat or by bringing a gun on campus, are psychological heirs to Whitman’s cold-blooded act. And when we grow accustomed to these threats of violence, though it denies these nameless, faceless perpetrators the attention they might crave, it also denies ourselves the outrage and confusion we have a right to feel when people threaten our lives.

Thursday morning, the University sent out a follow-up safety alert email on the bomb threat informing students that they had “no new information to offer” but which asked students to “remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity or unusual objects to UTPD.” Meanwhile, the national debate about how to “catch” and provide support to the mentally ill before they commit acts of violence continues. But it wouldn’t be practical for us to react or to question what made someone want to threaten our campus in the first place. It just happens too often these days. It’s just as  Lazare said: Another semester, another bomb threat.

Wright is a Plan II junior from San Antonio.