Campus Alert Criticisms

Lisana Nithiananthan (3L) 

On September 8th, 2015, over 84,000 students began the school year at the University of Toronto with all the fanfare and summer nostalgia one would typically expect of the first week back to school.

Two days later, on September 10th, all students received an alert about campus safety from Vice President and Provost, Professor Cheryl Regehr. The email (reproduced below)told students that the University was working with Toronto and Peel Police to investigate anonymous threats made against U of T, that these threats were taken very seriously, and that the police presence on all three campuses would be increased.

Beyond the minimal information provided in the email, the University remained tight-lipped about the situation. But in a tech-savvy era, it only takes moments to fire up Google and immediately find out what the University was so reticent to release of its own accord. In this case, what the University was not telling students was that:

  • the online threat was posted in the comments section of blogTO
  • the post was made on September 5th 2015
  • the poster’s username was “Kill Feminists”
  • the post specifically targets feminists and students in Women’s Studies classrooms

When this information came to light from other media outlets the University faced criticism, including at the hands of the University of Toronto Students’ Union. The UTSU criticized the administration for failing to clarify the target of the threats and organized a march to protest both the threat and their university’s handling of it.

The administration reportedly followed police advice in holding onto the details of the threat. While one cannot know the nature of this advice, one can only speculate that what the University ultimately conveyed to students was in an effort to allow the police to do their jobs without jeopardizing the investigation, to avoid panicking the students and staff, and to deter copycat threats.

However, while I can see the rationale for it, allegations that the University was withholding important information are not without merit. Without knowing the explicit and targeted nature of the threats, students and staff will be unable to take the necessary precautions to ensure their safety. It is better to be fully informed than to be ignorantly blissful. The failure to provide students with detailed, timely information may have actually caused more panic from a fear of not knowing.

Even Federal NDP candidate Ms. Olivia Chow weighed in on the situation and recalling the tragic and horrific circumstances of the Montreal Massacre.

“It took Marc Lépine [the shooter responsible for the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal in 1998] 20 minutes to … snuff out the lives of 14 women, which he called a bunch of feminists, so a threat to feminists is a threat to all of us, whether it is at U of T or not — it is a threat to our city and our society,” said Chow.

The lack of critical information is unforgivable considering that similar threats were made in June on BlogTO, reported to police, but never shared with students or staff. The June threats were equally if not more harrowing, mentioning the use of machetes and guns on women, referring to Mayor John Tory, and most sickeningly referring to Marc Lépine.

The June threats only came to light on September 11 when the administration held an emergency meeting and revealed the existence of the earlier threats. Why did the administration keep information for months without alerting the students and staff? Given the consistency of the threat, why were students and staff not informed about the June threats in June? Or at the very least, in September when they were informed about the September threat?

Does it matter that the administration withheld crucial information on not one, but two instances, given that the police ultimately declared that the threat was not credible? Yes. The administration withheld the information before it was ever concluded to be not credible. The failure to provide full information sets a dangerous precedent and a climate of distrust. If students are not fully informed, how can they be safe? This whole ordeal suggests that on top of the readings, midterms, tuition, debt, and the disturbing threats online, students also have to worry about what their University is not telling them.

The Original Email

Dear students, faculty and staff:

The University is currently working with Toronto Police Service and Peel Regional Police Services to support an investigation into anonymous threats made on a public blog against the University of Toronto. We take these threats very seriously and want to ensure that we have a safe campus community.

We have increased campus police presence on our three campuses, and we are monitoring the situation closely. We are following the advice and direction of Toronto Police Services with respect to their expert assessment of safety on campus. We will continue to monitor the concern with Toronto Police Services and provide updates to the community.

I encourage you to report any suspicious activity to the police at 911 or campus police St George: 416-978-2222, UTM: 905-569-4333, UTSC: 416-287-7333, and to consult the Community Safety Office if you have any concerns about your personal safety.

The University has a variety of safety programs to support students, faculty and staff while on campus see www.safety.utoronto.ca for more information.

Sincerely,

Professor Cheryl Regehr

Vice-President and Provost