EDITORIAL: College overreaction shows need for better emergency procedures

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Northwest College administrators made it clear last week that they care deeply about the safety of their students.

When administrators learned late Thursday morning that someone had sent a threatening message — claiming that hundreds of pipe bombs and other dangerous items had been placed in dozens of buildings and schools across the state — they wasted little time in deciding to close the NWC campus.

Employees were sent home immediately; students living on campus were directed to return to their dormitories, where college staff conducted protective sweeps of the buildings; a 4 p.m. presentation by a Montana artist was shelved; a 9 p.m. student dance was canceled; and students were initially told they’d have to eat dinner in their dorms. (They were ultimately allowed to return to the DeWitt Student Center for their evening meal.)

On the one hand, NWC officials deserve our appreciation. Thursday’s events left little doubt that, when forced to make a tough decision, the college will err on the side of protecting its students.

“I would rather err on the side of caution and have somebody criticize me that I overreacted than the contrary,” said NWC President Stefani Hicswa. “The other side of it is to do nothing and have a bomb go off on campus. It’s one of those things where, when safety is concerned, you’ve got to react and you’ve got to react quickly. You make decisions based on what you know at the time.”

Poor communication by the state made the decision more difficult — as likely did the fact that Hicswa learned of the threat while at a meeting in Casper — but we believe college officials should consider revising their policies to not err quite so far on the cautious side in the future.

Shutting down the campus, directing employees to leave “immediately” and canceling all of the day’s events caused something of a panic. Suddenly, anxious parents across the county wondered whether they should be picking up their children from local K-12 schools; worried residents scrambled for more information about what was happening; prayer requests went out.

Yes, we want any errors to be on the side of caution, but Thursday’s events are a reminder that being too careful has impacts as well. We believe NWC’s response was an overreaction — and a preventable one.

For example, the University of Northern Iowa’s policy on bomb threats says that, “Evacuation of a building will be ordered and enforced only if there seems to be a genuine threat to the safety of individuals in the building.”

Thursday’s campus closure was not an evacuation, but it had a similar effect.

It is undoubtedly easier to make a judgment call from the comfortable confines of this newspaper — after all, we are not the ones charged with overseeing the well-being of the college’s students — but we fail to see a genuine threat in this case. More importantly, local law enforcement didn’t see it, either.

“There’s nothing to indicate it’s a credible threat,” Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt said early Thursday afternoon.

While their intentions were good, Northwest College administrators’ actions had the unfortunate effect of giving the threat added credibility.

We would encourage the college to ensure that local law enforcement can provide input in the decision-making process.

It’s only fair to note that Northwest College administrators were not the only ones to take serious protective measures: Western Wyoming College in Rock Springs and Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington similarly decided to shut down their campuses, while some K-12 schools went into lockdown and canceled events. The state’s other four community colleges and places like the Powell and Cody schools opted to be extra attentive and monitor the situation, but otherwise carry on business as usual.

It also should be noted that the ultimate blame for Thursday’s tumult lies with the person or people who submitted the false threat. We hope they are unmasked and called to answer for the harm they have caused.

Until then, we hope Northwest College administrators can use this experience to fine-tune their procedures toward avoiding overreaction — while continuing their commendable commitment to safety.

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