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Making Sense of CENS


With monthly test alerts through many mediums, North Dakota State’s Campus Emergency Notification System is a service NDSU students and employees know well.

But after the disappearance of freshman Thomas Bearson and the off-campus sexual assault of three female students, the campus and community have questioned why the system was not utilized.

Since 2008, campus emergency notification systems have been required by the North Dakota University System for all NDUS institutions to alert students and employees to situations that pose “an immediate threat to the health or safety of someone in the institution or system community or significantly disrupts institution or system programs and activities.”

Understanding CENS

Currently, all NDUS employees and students must participate in CENS by submitting contact information for notifications via email and phone to be used in case of an emergency.

“They use (CENS) when (an emergency) affects the entire campus,” Student Body President Sarah Russell said, ” … is my understanding of when they use it.”

Testing of CENS is conducted at 2 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month, one hour after the City of Fargo’s siren system test, Ray Boyer, director of University Police, said in an email.

Section 721 of NDSU’s Policy Manual recommends tests “periodically and at least once during each semester.”

In the case of an emergency, Section 721 lists those authorized to approve alerts as “the NDSU President, members of the President’s Cabinet, the Director of University Police & Safety Office … or a designated representative(s) of these officials.”

When necessitated, CENS alerts students and employees with either a timely warning or immediate notification, depending on the nature of the reported incident.

“It’s not an information-sharing thing,” Russell said. “It’s an emergency situation-sharing message.”

Student Body Vice President Hilary Haugeberg added that NDSU’s reaction to the bomb threat on Sept. 14, 2012, is a good example of CENS’s use.

NDSU’s main campus, downtown halls and agricultural facilities were all evacuated that day via CENS.

“Because of the understanding of CENS and the directions provided in the monthly tests, students and employees were able to leave the campus, know a follow-up notification would be coming and refrained from calling emergency lines so they were used to assist in resolving the incident,” Boyer said. “Our process worked when it was supposed to!”

Thomas Bearson disappearance 

CENS was not used after freshman Thomas Bearson was reported missing the afternoon of Sept. 20.

It was not until 9 p.m. Sept. 21 that his disappearance was addressed by NDSU in a news conference with Timothy Alvarez, vice president for student affairs.

By that time, some students had already learned of Bearson’s disappearance.

Freshman Courtney Volk said she learned from Twitter about Bearson missing. A #FindTom hashtag started up in the late afternoon of Sept. 21, several hours before NDSU’s news conference.

It was on Sept. 23 that NDSU first directly addressed Bearson’s disappearance with students.

“I’m sure you have heard by now that one of our students, Thomas Bearson has been reported missing,” Alvarez said in an NDSU Student Announcements email.

NDSU’s Annual Security Report for 2014-2015 lists the Missing Students Policy, a protocol only applicable for students residing on-campus.

Following notification of a suspected missing, on-campus student to University Police, the department “will initiate an investigation and generate a missing persons report,” according to the Annual Security Report. From there, notification to the student’s emergency contact will happen no more than 24 hours after the student is determined missing by police.

Bison Arms assault 

On Dec. 20, three female international students were assaulted at the Bison Arms Apartments, which is 121 feet away from the nearest campus property.

A masked man entered the students’ apartment that night, holding them at knifepoint while forcing them to undress. He then sexually assaulted two of the women before they were able to escape to other apartments.

Eight days later, 39-year-old Stanley Joe Busche turned himself into law enforcement following media scrutiny. He is charged with two counts of gross sexual imposition, one count of attempted sexual imposition and one count of terrorizing.

In a Dec. 22 email to campus, Boyer said, “Because the incident occurred off campus and the investigation did not come onto the campus, no warning nor notification was issued by NDSU.”

“Aggravated assault and sex offenses are considered case-by-case,” for CENS timely warnings according to Section 721.

UND’s NotiFind 

On Sept. 30, 2013, an off-campus sexual assault occurred adjacent to University of North Dakota property.

With information provided by the Grand Forks Police Department, UND police utilized NotiFind, UND’s emergency notification system, later that day for the “potentially dangerous situation.”

“The safety and security of the UND campus is of the utmost important (sic) to the UND Police Department,” Daniel Weigel, UND Police Department’s sergeant of investigations, said in an email. “By providing campus community members with pertinent information we believe that the campus community can make informed decisions regarding safety.”

Antonio Raheem Matthews, then 20, was arrested and charged two days later and was convicted on eight felonies including three counts of gross sexual imposition last August.

He was sentenced in October to life in prison without parole.

“(NotiFind) is used on a case-by-case basis depending on what best fits the emergency that exists at that time,” Weigel said. “It naturally extends beyond the borders of campus to reach members of the community.”

Greek Life “gray area” 

When the 2012 bomb threat necessitated the evacuation of campus via CENS, the Greek Life houses that stand off-campus were not evacuated, even though they are NDSU-affiliated.

“Greek housing sometimes falls in that gray area,” Haugeberg, a member of the Kappa Delta sorority, said. “The day of the bomb threat … we pulled in students off the streets into our house to make sure that they were in a safe place … They’re definitely still a part of campus; it’s just one of those gray things.”

Amanda Kuhn, Alpha Gamma Delta sorority president, said any sorority members living on campus were invited to the house until NDSU reopened.

Kuhn added that Greek Life houses have protocol to follow after any emergency, such as a break-in or sexual assault.

This includes notifying the NDSU and Fargo police, as well as the house association.

“I don’t know if they send out the CENS notification if something like that happened at our house,” Kuhn said. “I think it’s more kept within our Greek community.”

Though affiliated with NDSU, the Greek Life houses are “independently owned,” said Courtney Barstad, assistant director of fraternity and sorority life.

Campus reactions

Months after the two incidents that sparked the scrutiny of CENS, people of NDSU have pondered the system’s use.

Sophomore Kara Fix believes CENS is a good system that does its job, but Bearson’s disappearance should have been addressed by it.

“That could have been a good way to get people’s eyes open, get people on the alert,” she said. “I think that would have been a good time for that.”

Matt Kramer, a Center for Writers consultant, said that as often as CENS is tested, it should be utilized in situations such as those last fall.

“I think (CENS) is overly narrow and vigilant at the times it most doesn’t need to be. The fact that they didn’t ever send anything out about Thomas Bearson or the off-campus sex assault, but I do get two emails, anywhere between one and three phone calls and four to six text messages just because it’s a test, is really unbalanced.”

At its core, CENS is for the safety and security of NDSU. It is not for every incident that may be affiliated with NDSU, nor for every emergency involving students or employees.

“It’s unfortunate that campus safety has been a frequent topic this year because of certain events,” Russell said in an email. “The University Police do so much on campus to ensure safety in a way that many do not see or notice.”

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