Administration

As Stabbing Attack Unfolded, U. of Texas Officials Strained to Curb Misinformation

May 03, 2017

Tamir Kalifa, Austin American-Statesman, AP Images
Students wait near the scene of a fatal stabbing attack on Monday at the U. of Texas at Austin. The police said later that they needed to alert people about such incidents more quickly, as rumors multiplied about what had happened.

Updated (5/3/2017, 7:43 p.m.): The Austin American-Statesman and KXAN-TV reported on Wednesday that a student admitted lying about being wounded in a knife attack around 4 p.m. on Monday elsewhere on campus. The man had been “playing with a knife and he accidentally cut himself,” the police said, and he invented the story after realizing how expensive medical treatment would be. The fabricated information has been removed from this article.

The 30 minutes between the time violence erupted on Monday at the University of Texas at Austin and the time an emergency alert went out to students seemed like an eternity to people who are accustomed to minute-by-minute updates on their phones.

As is often the case when tragedy strikes and the police are rushing to respond, social media quickly filled the void.

By the time official word got out that four students had been stabbed — one fatally — and a suspect was in custody, rumors had been flying about a coordinated attack on fraternity and sorority members, some of whom quickly turned their Greek shirts inside out.

The killer, some tweets suggested, might have been connected with an anarchist group agitated by a raucous immigration protest that was underway nearby.

Neither rumor was true. The suspect, the police said on Tuesday, was a 21-year-old student, Kendrex J. White, who may have had mental-health problems but, as far as they knew, no vendetta against anyone. Mr. White, who the police said had been involuntarily committed in another city recently for undisclosed mental issues, was being booked Tuesday on murder charges.

In a news conference on Tuesday, university officials conceded that they had been too slow to report what had happened and that the delay had given time for bad information to get out.

But they said that from the time the university police received the first call about the lunchtime attack, it took less than two minutes for them to arrive and apprehend the suspect.

By that point, they said afterward, it seemed clear that the situation was under control and so there was no need for a campus lockdown. Their focus, at that point, was on arresting the suspect and getting treatment to the victims.

Their explanation did little to appease students who were upset that they had learned about the attack from social media, and not from Texas authorities.

"Many students and parents are frustrated with how long the university took to notify them of today’s attack," the university’s president, Gregory L. Fenves, wrote in a message late Monday. "I understand those frustrations, and I am committed to faster notification in the future."

Austin’s interim police chief, whose force worked closely with the campus police, concurred.

"There was a lot of misinformation being put out on social media," Brian Manley said on Tuesday. "We need to be the ones putting out the information, and that delay was too long."

Rumors and Speculation

By early evening on Monday, the Austin police, who had been fielding a barrage of 911 calls, tweeted that there were a lot of rumors going around about additional attacks, but none of them were found to be credible.

The campus police urged students to rely on official sources for accurate information.

 
To add to the confusion, and to the difficulty for the police in keeping everyone up to date without provoking panic, a body was found on Monday evening in a campus apartment. That prompted this reaction:

The police said on Tuesday that there was no evidence that that death was suspicious or related in any way to the earlier stabbings.

The speculation that fraternity members were being targeted was fueled by incidents last month in which a half dozen fraternities were spray-painted with the words "rapist," "racist," and "kill the frats."

An anonymous group of self-described anarchists wrote a chilling message claiming responsibility for the vandalism and adding, "We are at your gates. Your walls will fall. And you will be sacked."

Tensions rose and conspiracy theories deepened on Monday, when a banner was unfurled outside a campus communications building. It said: "Tuition pays for bombs."

The building was evacuated as a precaution.

During the Tuesday news conference, campus and local authorities provided updates on Monday’s attacks.

The student who died was the first the suspect had targeted as he walked, expressionless, through a crowd of students, kicking one woman out of the way to get to the first victim, the police said. He was identified as Harrison Brown, a freshman and talented musician.

After stabbing three more students, one of whom remained hospitalized on Tuesday, Mr. White was arrested as he was approaching another group of students, still brandishing a hunting knife, the police said.

The stabbing victims were one Asian male and three other white males.

The latest tragedy occurred just over a year after another Texas freshman, Haruka Weiser, was killed by a homeless teenager as she was walking home at night. Since then, the university has made extensive security upgrades on the campus.

"We have a lot of emotions, including fear and mistrust," Mr. Fenves said during Tuesday’s news conference. "Students are asking, ‘How can this happen again, and will it happen again?’ I’m feeling the same way. I’m hurt and I’m angry that our campus has seen these tragedies with two of our students."

Asked about reports that the suspect had missed up to a month of classes, campus authorities urged students who are concerned about another student’s behavior to contact the campus’s Behavior Concerns Advice Line.

They also urged students, who tend to walk around the campus listening to music and texting friends, to look up, listen, and be alert to their surroundings. Patrols on the campus have been ramped up.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.

Update (5/3/2017, 1:51 p.m.): This article originally stated imprecisely where campus patrols have been stepped up. They have increased across the campus, not just in the West Campus area. The article has been updated accordingly.