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Student Anxiety Lingers As Police Try To Debunk ISU Abduction Claims

Watterson Towers
Emily Bollinger
/
WGLT
Social media has been buzzing around the Illinois State University campus about reports of attempted abductions and other threats of violence on campus. Police say the reports are largely unfounded.

Illinois State University sophomore Melissa Ahrens said she wasn't afraid to walk alone on campus last year. But after hearing claims of violence in recent weeks, she's concerned to walk outside to her dining hall, especially after dark.

Ahrens has armed herself with a knife and pepper spray.

“The walk to and from (Tri-Towers), there are no blue lights, there are really not that many streetlights and it’s right next to a residential area, so it can be a little scary,” Ahrens said.

She and other students have been talking, mostly on social media, about their safety being at risk based on claims of violence and suspicious vehicles that have circulated over the last week.

“I would rather just call somebody random from my floor than actually call 911."
ISU sophomore Melissa Ahrens

It's not clear whether these attempted abductions actually happened, but what is clear is some students don't feel safe and don't feel police are listening to their concerns.

ISU sent out a campus-wide alert last week to address the claims. It said police were actively investigating, but said the Normal Police Department confirmed there have been no abduction attempts.

Anna Woods is a grad student in music. Woods said that message didn't put her mind at ease.

“The school really hasn’t talked about it a whole lot,” Woods said. “I feel like they sent out a vague email which I think puts more fear (in people), especially for the females here on campus."

Threats of violence on the ISU campus are not only a concern for women. Harrison Gordon is a sophomore music business student. He said violence is the biggest safety threat on campus, but he said police don't seem to take it seriously.

“They are a lot more focused on Saturday nights and Friday nights doing things like busting up parties, or giving out drinking tickets than they ever are trying to protect our women in town from violence or sexual violence,” Gordon said.

Aaron Woodruff standing next to police car
Illinois State University
Aaron Woodruff standing in front of police vehicle

ISU police chief Aaron Woodruff said the abduction attempt report that fueled most of the students’ concerns was based on a call from one female student who reported seeing someone run into an apartment building.

Woodruff said he doesn't want to discount her fear or her interpretation of events, but noted an investigation by ISU and Normal Police found no evidence to verify her claims. Woodruff said if the community doesn't want to believe that, there's not much police can do.

“That’s a problem. I can’t fix that for our community if they don’t want to believe what we are saying that the evidence doesn’t support it,” Woodruff said.

Brad Park is the community resource officer for the Normal Police Department. Park said NPD has no evidence to prove or disprove any safety threats on the ISU campus. Park said police have tried to diffuse students' fears about their safety, but he said social media makes it hard to control that message.

“The messaging that goes out is like the telephone game, things get changed as the message goes along."
Brad Park, Normal Police Department

“The messaging that goes out is like the telephone game. Things get changed as the message goes along,” Park said. “We just want to have a unified message with what we know.”

Social media has amplified students' concerns about safety, but that can become an echo chamber.

Nate Carpenter, director of convergent media in ISU's School of Communication, said it's hard to use social media as an accurate gauge.

“Many people may be sharing the same incident over and over again to the extent that it feels like it’s happening everywhere, where it may just be one isolated incident that’s being shared throughout several different networks,” Carpenter explained.

He said most of the online chatter about threats has been on social media channels that are mostly private, such as Snapchat and WhatsApp, the social media more popular among students, so it doesn't get the broader exposure through a more public site such as Facebook, where more people may see it and perhaps take the threats more seriously.

“What I’ve been seeing with this issue over the past week is that there is a disconnect in consumption and production of media,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter said anyone who feels concerns about their safety shouldn't rely on social media. He said they should go the authorities. But several students, including Ahrens, say they don't believe talking to police will make much difference.

“I would rather just call somebody random from my floor than actually call 911,” Ahrens said.

Chief Woodruff said he's concerned students are reaching conclusions based on bad information that preys on their anxieties and fears.

“Unfortunately, if they are not following us and they are just following each other and sharing misinformation, that washes that out,” Woodruff said.

Woodruff said ISU PD uses a tiered system to communicate threats to the campus community. The department sends emergency alerts via text for imminent threats. For less immediate incidents, ISU will send out a crime advisory. He said the department will use social media for safety issues that are less specific to campus, such as the recent fatal shooting at a mobile home park in north Normal.

Illinois State University President Terri Goss Kinzy said she encourages everyone on campus to look out for themselves - and for each other. And if you see something, report it immediately.

“We want people to be confident, but we also want them to be diligent, and we want them to use the services we offer and to know we’re not thinking about this today because this happened; this is something we think about every day,” Kinzy told the Vidette.

Redbird Safe Walk is another option. It's available to all students, faculty, and staff members who would like to be escorted to and from places including campus locations, bus stops, and apartments close to campus. Redbird Safe Walk is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Call (309) 438-WALK to request an escort. For Relay Service for the Deaf please call (309) 438-8266.

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Corrected: September 20, 2021 at 3:15 PM CDT
WGLT corrected this story to reflect ISU Police Chief Aaron Woodruff's description of the alleged abduction attempt.
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