Last Thursday, a Bowie State University student was fatally stabbed in her on-campus apartment about 8 p.m. As with any news event lately, details quickly spread through social media, with students reporting on Twitter that the victim had been stabbed by her roommate during a fight involving an iPod.
Hours before the media had firm details to report, students and others had tweeted the names of the two students, along with their Twitter handles, and offered condolences.
The first tweet from the university’s Twitter account — @BowieState — didn’t come until Friday morning about 5 a.m., when an official statement was posted online.
Instead of using its Twitter account (which has less than 1,500 followers) to communicate with students, the university used its opt-in text messaging emergency alert service.
The first of seven messages from BSU Director of Public Safety Ernest Waiters was sent at 9:24 p.m. Thursday: “PG County Police is investigating a stabbing that occurred inside Christa McAuliffe Hall about 8:00pm. The incident occurred on the 2nd floor.”
At that time, many students were attending a Homecoming comedy show, and news was just beginning to spread on Twitter, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Five minutes later, another message: “If you saw anyone running from the second floor you are asked to contact P.G. County Police or BSU Police.”
The next three text messages told students that no one could leave or enter the housing complex where the stabbing occurred. Those who lived there and couldn’t get inside were directed to the Center for Learning and Technology. The last message in that series arrived at 11:16 p.m.
The next message was sent at 4:16 a.m. the next morning: “Due to the tragic event on campus Thursday evening. All class and day
activities have been cancelled for Friday.”
In between, students looked to Twitter and local media reports for new information, including that the suspect turned herself into police at about midnight.
Several students that I talked with on campus Friday said they stayed up nearly all night, trying to track down news on their own. In one residence hall, students locked themselves in their rooms and were afraid to venture outside alone, as they didn’t know if the suspect was still at large.
"It was really scary, and everyone was locking their doors and asking, 'Will you walk with me to the bathroom?' " said Jasmine Harvey, 19, a sophomore psychology major from Upper Marlboro.
On Thursday night, officials focused their attention on alerting students to the immediate threat and responding to the needs of students directly affected, said university spokeswoman Cassandra Robinson. She emphasized that the university did not have much information that night to share with students, as the Maryland State Police controlled the investigation.
On Friday, the university posted a state police statement about the case on its Web site and hosted a campus-wide meeting to update students on what had happened and offer counseling services.
Twitter and social media kept coming up during the meeting, which hundreds attended. The university police chief begged students to stop spreading misinformation about the case online. And a counselor said that while social networks can provide a feeling of support and comfort, students should not only talk there.
“During this time of high emotion, we encourage you to talk face-to face and not so much over social networks,” said D. Fredrica Brooks, “because in your anger and your disappointment, you may say things that you can’t take back.”