It was quickly evident to police on the scene that no foul play was involved in the off-campus death of student Amanda Bebout on Monday night, TCU Police Chief Steve McGee said. However, that information had to be confirmed by a homicide specialist before it could be released to the student body, he said Tuesday.
McGee said it took about an hour for the homicide specialist to arrive on the scene Monday night after officers were dispatched shortly after 8 p.m. McGee said he remained in close contact with Fort Worth Police throughout the investigation and kept an officer at the scene until the homicide specialist had performed his investigation.
“I called the captain and said, ‘Look, I’m on a time line; I want to get something out. If there’s a danger to my community I need to let them know,'” McGee said.
McGee said a local news station reported the incident as a homicide in which the victim was bound with duct tape but retracted that information later.
“Any time that we gather enough information to determine that the TCU community is threatened by a criminal activity … we want to warn people,” McGee said. “We put those alerts out because we want to keep the TCU community safe. But in this case it was pretty clear in the beginning there was going to be a ruling that there was (no) foul play.”
Rumors about the cause of death spread throughout the student body from various sources Monday night, including word-of-mouth and TV reports.
Lisa Albert, director of communications, wrote in an e-mail that the university determined the TCU Alert system, which reaches the TCU community via e-mail, cell phone text messages and home phone messages, was not appropriate for this situation.
“TCU Alert is used in case of emergencies or university closures,” Albert wrote. “The TCU app is not designed for disseminating information to the campus community in that way.”
According to an incident report from the Fort Worth Police Department, officers were dispatched to the victim’s home on Lubbock Avenue at about 8:10 p.m. Monday night. The e-mail notification regarding the off-campus death was sent out to university faculty, staff and students at 11:15 p.m., more than three hours after police arrived at the scene.
Don Mills, vice chancellor for Student Affairs, said university protocol for campus emergencies was slightly different for every incident, but it was especially important in this case to make sure the information was accurate before being distributed.
“While that appeared to be what the facts were (no foul play involved), we made the decision that until the findings were complete, both by the detectives and the medical examiner, it would be unwise to have issued a statement earlier,” Mills said. “If we issued a statement that calmed people down and then came back with a statement that said, ‘Oops, we were wrong,’ that, we believe, would have made the situation worse.”
An e-mail was determined to be the most effective communication method, Albert wrote.
However, a crisis management expert said the ideal practice on college campuses is to have the ability to blast an alert via text message to students’ cell phones as quickly as the information is available, approaching it from the perspective of being careful first.
“The best practice since Virginia Tech is to do that,” said Dan Keeney, president of DPK Public Relations, a local firm that specializes in crisis management. “I think that 30 minutes is too long.”
Keeney said subsequent messages could be sent out as more information becomes available.
“The last thing you want to do is create unnecessary panic, but you want to make sure students have the opportunity to protect themselves,” Keeney said. “It is in the best interests of a university to disseminate accurate information quickly to avoid unnecessary concern or panic based on inaccurate information or rumors.”