At 1:50 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 19, I was visiting friends in New South Hall’s fourth-floor common room when the fire alarm went off. Two of my friends had mentioned earlier that evening they had ridden in a New South elevator with a grown adult, which I originally did not connect with the cause of the fire alarm. However, when the dorm was evacuated and hundreds of students flooded onto Library Walk, rumors immediately started to circulate.
I heard that someone had been in a women’s restroom and multiple New South common rooms, as my friends pointed out that they thought the person being questioned by the police was the same one they had seen in the elevator. I also watched an hour later as the suspect escaped from the police. The university never sent a safety alert to the student body.
The following afternoon, I wrote an open letter to the administration, which has 328 signatures to date, to raise concerns about the university’s lack of response to the break-in. While it may be easy to picture the break-in as a one-off occurrence, it is representative of Georgetown University’s deeply flawed emergency response system that, if left unaddressed, will continue to put students’ safety at risk. The Office of Emergency Management must make immediate changes to the system, first and foremost by updating the criteria of what constitutes a HOYAlert, Georgetown’s emergency response notification system.
Since I wrote the letter over a week ago, students living in New South have learned through a Sept. 20 email from Georgetown University Police Department (GUPD) Chief Jay Gruber that the intruder possessed a pocketknife. This finding paints a picture of the potential for harm that extends far beyond the intrusion in New South.
The Office of Emergency Management did not release a HOYAlert during the intrusion, evacuation of New South or the intruder’s subsequent escape from GUPD. Given the confusion and potential for danger during this series of events, a HOYAlert was absolutely essential to ensure student safety while GUPD pursued the unidentified intruder.
Another alert should have been dispatched when the suspect escaped from the police. With an ongoing threat of harm from the intruder and a buildingwide evacuation after the fire alarm was pulled, clear and immediate communication from the university was more than necessary. Even if GUPD and the university did not believe the intruder was violent, the intruder carried a knife and entered a student residential building, clearly showing their ability to cause immediate and perhaps life-threatening harm. Why was a HOYAlert not sent? And when the suspect escaped from GUPD, why did the university continue to deny students information?
It took nearly 24 hours for the university to even publicly acknowledge to the student body that the event occurred, via a short email addressed only to New South residents sent on the evening of Sept. 19. I didn’t even know of the email until a friend living in New South told me about it. The email described an “unwanted person” who was “reported to be in a bathroom in the building” and later “left the scene.” Another email was sent the next day, providing more information, but once again it was only sent to residents of New South. The dangers posed by the intruder and their subsequent escape affected everyone living on campus, not just those in New South. University communications should have been sent to every residential Georgetown community member.
I hope the Office of Emergency Management will be more vigilant in sending emergency communications if and when similar events occur in the future. Effective communication is essential to ensuring students are prepared for emergency situations, and without it, students and community members will only continue to experience the fear and chaos that New South residents had to witness. The only way to prevent future harm is to make good use of our emergency response protocol; otherwise, the system’s very purpose is rendered useless.
Caleb Richmond is a first-year in the School of Foreign Service.