How do Systems Fail and Then Recover?

By: Alice Aronov  |  January 14, 2020

By Alice Aronov, Staff Writer

Universities have emergency preparedness plans. Yeshiva University is no exception. On their website, YU’s security department lists response plans to a number of incidents that can befall an urban university — alcohol and drug crises, bomb threat evacuations, gas leaks, chemical spills, and crimes in progress.

Even with all these well-thought out procedures, on Friday, December 20th, a man broke into Schottenstein Residence Hall, a dormitory on the Beren Campus. Students felt unsafe because safety procedures were not implemented until it was too late, and the information relayed to students from the administration was veiled and misleading. Somehow, YU Security failed that night. 

According to security footage from the lobby of Schottenstein Residence Hall, Peter Weyand (the perpetrator) began kicking down the door of the dormitory, at 3:44 a.m..  He left for a bit of time and returned, continuing to kick down the door until he successfully removed the bottom panel and crawled inside. He went to the security desk, picked up the phone receiver at the desk, put it down,and made his way to the back lounge of Schottenstein, where he set three fires. He was arrested by FDNY Fire Marshals. 

Following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, educational institutions strengthened their plans to protect against intruders, armed and unarmed. Across American schools, public and private, lockdown drills prepare students for the worst. Many people, including Matthew Shilat, YC‘21, remember their experiences with drills as children. “The student body didn’t take it very seriously,” he said. Despite this, children experiencing lockdown drills know how to be safe to the best of their ability in their schools, just like in the case of a fire. Shilat used the knowledge learned in these drills when a threat arose near his high school. He knew where to hide and how to utilize the code words employed in the situation. 

According to YU’s website, there is a lockdown plan in case of assailants. Security is meant to advise the student body with “specific instructions” relayed via text, email, and the intercom. People in university buildings are to go into rooms that can be secured, and lock or barricade the doors. Lights are to be turned off, blinds closed, and cell phones silenced. This is supposed to continue until security gives the all-clear. 

When directed to the webpage with the lockdown instructions, an anonymous student reported that it took much longer than expected to find the protocols. The student recommended that there be a list of all situations that can befall a student in case of emergency, with a link to the proper protocol. In distress she would not be able to navigate the page. 

According to many students, both on the Beren and Wilf campuses, they have never experienced a lockdown drill, nor have they received instructions on how to handle a lockdown through security workshops. Natania Birnbaum, SCW ‘21, recalled, “[There has been] nothing like a drill at Stern at all, only the security session at first year orientation when we were made aware of some of the security measures that were in place – the card scanners, the patrols, the magnets on the doors, etc.” 

Lockdown drills are implemented with some form of communication between security and the inhabitants of a building. Students report that they received intercom messages thirty minutes after the intruder approached security in Schottenstein. Security called 911, as per emails sent to students about the attack, but did not notify students of the danger facing them until multiple students came downstairs during the incident. These students then relayed to their fellow students that they should stay in their rooms.

During the break-in, fire alarms went off, which often indicates the need for evacuation. When reached for comment on whether a fire alarm or a lockdown procedure takes precedence, the FDNY could not comment and referred the YU Observer to YU security, saying they might have a protocol in place. Birnbaum said she remembers multiple times in residence halls on the Beren Campus when “residents were alerted with an alarm, and they didn’t know what it meant or what they should do.”

YU, in response to the incident, is attempting to place greater security safeguards. In an email to the student body on December 23rd, YU Security recognized “the safety and security of every member of our community is of utmost importance” and has “contracted with a third-party vendor who has done a thorough review of the safety and security of all our campuses.” It is unclear what recommendations were given by these third-party contractors to the YU Security team.

YU Security also tested their alert system on December 30th. Students and employees across all of YU’s campuses received text messages and emails. The message specifically informed the YU population that these types of alerts were to “communicate with the University Community in the event of certain situations or emergencies on or around campus, including warnings of possible threats, campus closures or severe weather.” It urged students and faculty to update their contact information so that the university could better reach them. YU contracts Everbridge, a company specializing in mass communication in emergency situations, for these alerts. It is widely used by other university security teams, such as Bryn Mawr College Security. In the Fall 2019 semester, the system had only been used by YU to notify students of weather advisories. 

Students, on edge from the break-in and attacks across the tri-state area against Jews, look forward to YU’s continued efforts to better their systems. 

The YU Observer will be receiving a security briefing from Yeshiva University after students return from winter break.