Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 36
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
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Bomb Hoax Tests PU Alert System

Matthew Hersh

Just days before Princeton University's undergraduate population began to return to campus, two e-mailed bomb threats this week presented the ultimate test in a new security alert system designed to keep members of the University community out of harm's way.

The first threat, targeting the University's School of Engineering and Applied Science, arrived August 27 in the form of an e-mail message in a general information inbox. It was quickly determined to be a false alarm after the school's department of Public Safety conducted a scan of the buildings in question, producing no evidence of hazardous devices.

But a second threat, e-mailed to the University just before 8 p.m. on Saturday, set off a more urgent response, this time at the school's Lawrence Apartment graduate dormitory off Alexander Street. In that instance, a University employee had reportedly received the threatening e-mail message in his work e-mail account.

This time, police from Medford Township, which was called because it has a K-9 unit, Princeton Township, Lawrence Township, West Windsor Township, and the Mercer County Sheriff's Department, all responded to the scene, investigating another false alarm for what amounted to "a few hours," according to University spokesperson Cass Cliatt.

The FBI and New Jersey State Police quickly ruled the first threat to be a hoax, because of similarly-worded messages sent to other institutions, Ms. Cliatt said, but the second threat set in to motion an alert system launched by the University in May of this year following the campus shootings at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute just one month prior.

That alert system, Connect-ED, employs various methods of communication including in-person contact, e-mail messages, text messaging, and phone contact. The amount of contact made by the University depends on the assessed level of threat to personal safety, Ms. Cliatt said. These particular hoaxes, she added, resulted in e-mail notification to occupants of the Engineering school and the Lawrence Apartments.

While the e-mail threats are thought to have originated off campus, the alert response represents a new campus-wide tension that is being felt on college campuses across the country. Administrators and campus security alike, however, are trying to maintain an environment where students largely feel comfortable in a campus setting. Chief Stephen P. Healy, PU's director of Public Safety, and the immediate past president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said following the Virginia Tech shootings that an open campus was "absolutely necessary," but that proper channels needed to be installed to keep all students properly informed in the event of an emergency.

For Princeton sophomores, juniors, and seniors, the involvement in the Connect-ED system is voluntary in terms of supplying full contact information, including cell phones. However, for the incoming freshman class, Ms. Cliatt said, supplying all appropriate contact information was part of the pre-enrollment process. "We're cognizant of the fact that even though we strongly encourage people to put their information in the system, not everyone has," she said. As such, public safety mobilizes to post flyers in related buildings, as well as in-person communication. "We have all of the various capabilities to reach people in a variety of ways, so if you're not sitting at your desk, if you're not at home, if you're walking across campus with your cell phone, there is a way to reach you immediately."

Campus police, along with the University's office of Information Technology and the FBI, are continuing to investigate last week's bomb threats, Ms. Cliatt said.

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