Courtney Barrow, a senior at Penn State University Park, was excited to return to State College for her first Arts Fest weekend this year. But just before coming back, she received an alarming text message. “I admit, I was a little shocked and surprised when I got the message about the stalking on campus. Not something you’d really expect to be hearing about on a college campus, especially at Penn State,” she said.
If you have an active Penn State email account, you also received this alert – along with another reporting a sexual assault on the University Park campus. These were simply the latest warnings from PSU Alert, the upgraded emergency notification system rolled out in July 2014.
Penn State spokesman Reidar Jensen says PSU Alert is crucial for crisis situations.
He explained, “We can reach 153,000 people with e-mails in under 5 minutes. We can reach the University Park community in less than 4 minutes with e-mail.”
Last October 12, a campus-wide alert was sent when police discovered an anonymous threat online for a shooting at the HUB-Robeson Center. “Certainly, we would see that as a demonstration of the effectiveness of the system,” Jensen said.
But it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the whole year.
At first, notifications about sexual assaults included safety suggestions titled “In an effort to reduce your risk of becoming a victim, please keep these tips in mind.” Critics called the phrasing victim blaming. This is a subject Jensen takes great care to address with a prepared statement. “We are constantly evolving in the way we talk about sexual assault. It’s an incredibly important issue and its one we want to make sure we get right.”
Erin Farley, an outreach coordinator with the Penn State Center for Women Students, agrees that handling sexual assault notifications can be tricky. “At first, the safety tips were really risk reduction strategies that people can take. So things people can do to protect or lower your risk of being sexually assaulted. But we know that even if people take all the risk reductions strategies into account, they can still be a victim or a survivor of sexual assault because really the responsibility is on the perpetrator,” said Farley.
The safety tips were changed to include warnings for perpetrators like “Sexual assault is a second degree felony in the state of PA” and “Get verbal consent from your partner.”
Courtney Barrow says receiving so many alerts concerning sexual assault has made an impact on her. “To be honest, I think I do get so many sexual assault text messages, that it is a little bit like white noise. I’m not really surprised by it anymore, which is really, really unfortunate.”
But Farley says it’s important to put the alerts in context. “And just realizing that it’s a text message, but its also someone’s experience that we are being notified about and keeping that in mind in terms of it not feeling like just another alert.”
Penn State urges everyone with an active account to add their cell phone numbers to the database for text or voice alerts.
Despite the text messages, Courtney Barrow says she still enjoyed her weekend. “It just made me a little bit more wary and little more informed about where I go out at night,” she said.