Nfld. & Labrador

Students, staff blast MUN over lack of communication during emergency

Students and staff say Memorial University didn't do a good job letting people know what to do during reports of a gunman on campus Thursday.

Memorial University promises to improve communication with staff and students

Memorial University Manager of Communications Dave Sorensen says the university needs to do a better job of letting people know what's happening in an emergency situation. 4:10

Kevin Green was in math class Thursday morning when Memorial University's St. John's campus started shutting down over reports of a gun man.

"Even our professor didn't know what was going on," Green told CBC News.

He said it was only after a fellow student checked Twitter that the class learned the school was going into a lockdown. 

The university tweeted that campus was closing down amid reports that there was a possible armed man in the university centre.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary later said there wasn't a weapon, but a man had been detained under the Mental Health Care and Treatment Act.

The whole situation lasted about 40 minutes.

"They could have better means of communicating that out," said student Caitlyn Hawkins.

Students Caitlyn Hawkins and Kevin Green both say the university needs to directly notify students in an emergency rather than relying on social media (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Hawkins was at home when she saw a post on Facebook which said the university was closed. She said she didn't know what to do.

"I wasn't sure then if I should continue coming today," she said.

MUN's manager of communications said the university relies on staff and students regularly checking social media to find out what's happening.

An email was supposed to go out to staff, but Dave Sorensen said a glitch in the system meant that didn't happen.
Even during the height of the emergency, some students were still walking into the university centre, seemingly unaware of the situation.

"We need to do a better job of letting folks know what's happening.- Dave Sorensen, Memorial University

"It's a challenge, there are lots of people at that time of day coming and going from campus, moving between buildings," Sorensen said. 

"It's not like a school where there's a single building and you can go on a PA system and let folks know — there are 60 or 70 buildings on this campus," he said.

"We do find social media a useful way to do it."

But Sorensen said it's now clear the university needs to improve the way it communicates such information.

"We need to do a better job of letting folks know what's happening."

'It didn't seem very well done at all'

Many staff were also left scrambling to figure out what was going on. Charlene Jackson works with information technology in the S.J. Carew Building.

"It didn't seem very well done at all," Jackson said.

"We had to find out on social media, there was no real official announcement on the MUN website. We didn't hear an announcement on the PA until after we had organized ourselves and decided, 'OK, we're going to lock ourselves in.' So no, overall it was not very well done."

Charlene Jackson says the university didn't do a good job of letting staff know what to do during the campus shutdown. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Jackson said custodial staff in the engineering building ensured students were kept safe.

"They had to take it upon themselves to put students into secure areas, into classrooms and lock them in. And generally it was a lot of students just wandering around wondering what they're supposed to do, and what was happening."

Jackson said the university needs an official place to post information in emergency situations, rather than just relying on Twitter.

She said television monitors placed around campus should also be used to communicate what's happening and what students should do.

Sorensen said the university is looking into an email or text alert system to ensure more students and staff are notified directly.

"We're listening to all the folks who are commenting on how we reacted and we'll look at that — and again, we'll try and do better next time," he said.

"I think we did a decent job considering it all happened in a 40 minute time frame."

About the Author

Peter Cowan

CBC News

Peter Cowan is a St. John's-based reporter with CBC News.