With the reconstruction of the Blue Light emergency poles, students are left in the dark as to long-term plans to keep campus safe.
Before committing to coming here, I visited the University of Tulsa with my mom and she asked the same question she had asked everywhere else: what is the university doing to ensure the safety of students on campus? Our university ambassador dutifully responded with a description of the campus’ Blue Light poles, placed all over campus and well lit, visible at all times. If, at any point, someone walking feels unsafe or uncomfortable, the university promised that pushing the button on these poles would immediately alert campus security to their location and dispatch an officer.
For many young people moving away from home and living on their own for the first time, the college experience is not only riddled with a slew of new academic responsibilities, but also with the challenges of navigating vulnerable situations. Whether walking alone in the dark, seeing others in need of help, or feeling generally unsafe, the Blue Light poles not only offered a way to call for assistance in any of these situations, but also created a general sense of security. In this way, the Blue Light poles conveyed that TU was an environment committed to making every person feel comfortable and safe.
This semester, the university laid out a plan to phase out the Blue Light Telephone System. On poles around campus, signs cover the buttons which used to call campus security. These new signs encourage students in need of assistance to dial the number for campus security or scan a QR code. The code leads them to download an app called SafeZone, which requires students to register using their university emails before operating. The interface of the app opens to three large buttons: emergency, help, and first aid. Users can push one of the buttons to connect to local response teams and/or campus security—the app’s website outlines that the “help” button should be used in situations like reporting suspicious activity or requesting a safety escort while “emergency” and “first aid” might be used for situations requiring immediate attention like medical problems.
As this transition to the SafeZone app is carried out, individuals in unsafe or uncomfortable situations are left with a system which is difficult to navigate. Anyone in a situation where they would usually want to use one of these poles would have to spend an extended period of time either stopping at a pole to take down the phone number or quickly scanning the QR code and going through the motions of setting up a SafeZone account. If the original intention of the Blue Light System was centered on emergency response and efficiency, this has been completely abandoned during this transitional period.
TU administration has cited the cost of maintaining and repairing these poles as a reason to replace them with the SafeZone app. The decision to phase out the poles was apparently made without any student input or consideration of potential obstacles for students seeking to use the app.
Even after the transition to the SafeZone app, students like Gillian McPhail, a junior women and gender studies double major, have raised questions about the accessibility of an app for individuals in an emergency situation. In a detailed Instagram post titled “a plea from a TU student,” which has spread throughout social media over the last week, McPhail explained that personal phones are not always available when we need them to be; someone might not have a smartphone, their phone might have died, or they might not have gone through the extensive process of finding space on their phone to download, register and set up the app.
McPhail’s post has circulated with a call for readers to sign an anonymously created petition asking the university to keep the Blue Light phones on campus. Outlining that both the post and petition had been created with the intention of spreading awareness about this issue, McPhail explained that this situation “conveys the gap of communication between the students and TU administration …”
On Sept. 17, the Student Association released a statement on the Blue Light poles, supporting concerns that students expressed about the removal of the poles. This was posted shortly before the university announced its recommitment to maintaining the current system. McPhail is hopeful about the process moving forward, stating that administration has asked her, among other students, to provide their perspectives on the Blue Lights.
The university’s promise to reconsider the removal of the poles represents the power of student organizing. McPhail articulated that “this would have not happened without the TU community who felt like the only way of [sic] for their voices to be heard is by sharing and supporting the petition and post!” While the resolution of this issue represents a positive step toward reaffirming TU’s commitment to creating a safe campus environment, it must also serve as a reminder of the importance of holding administration accountable when they aren’t meeting the needs of the community they serve.