Westmont Fire Out? Let’s Pray So!

The fire that destroyed 20% of Westmont’s campus, and 200 multi-million dollar homes of neighbors was put out earlier this week, but the worst trouble started after the fire was out.

The local sheriff held a news conference earlier this week to say they had found the source of the fire – it was “10 college students all from the same campus” who had built a bonfire in a park just a few blocks from the Westmont campus, and didn’t put out their fire properly.  The embers from the student’s fire ignited about 12 hours later and quickly spread.

Of course all of Santa Barbara and Los Angeles jumped to the conclusion it was Westmont students who started the fire.  Galye Bebe, the president held his own news conference yesterday to make clear it was NOT Westmont students – after taking two days of vicious attacks from the community because the sheriff left the implication it was their students.

Here is the editorial in the Santa Barbara Independent today asking the community to apologize to Westmont – and from my opinion, that sheriff needs some significant training in crisis communications.

What a shame to put the Westmont campus through this emotional fire, on top of all they have suffered from the blaze itself.

Westmont College Owed a Public Apology

School Was Savaged by the Way Sheriff Brown Handled Tuesday’s New Conference

By Ray Ford
Thursday, November 20, 2008

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown should have known better. At Tuesday’s news conference in which he announced that a multi-agency investigation had determined the cause of the Tea Fire, Brown described the suspects as ten young adults between the ages of 18 and 22 who all attended the same school.

For whatever reason known only to Brown and perhaps those close to the investigation, he declined to answer any further questions regarding those involved other than to say there were both males and females in attendance at the Tea Garden bonfire party.

Sheriff Brown should have known that once the news reached the public many would draw the simple conclusion that the ten were more-than-likely Westmont College students since the Tea Garden is within easy walking distance of the campus.

As a result, in the past two days since the news conference, Westmont College has been savaged by the public. Yesterday, this forced Westmont President Gayle Beebe into the unenviable position of having to defend his school against these attacks. While it appears Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Drew Sugars informed President Beebe that the students involved in starting the Tea Fire were not from Westmont, the Sheriff’s Department has refused to confirm this publicly and as of today (Thursday, 11 a.m.) no additional information has been released.

Thankfully, City College officials have stepped into the void left by Sheriff Brown. Just an hour ago Santa Barbara City College President Andreea Serban confirmed that nine of the ten people allegedly responsible for the Tea Fire were enrolled at the school. Amazingly, she also confirmed that they had been notified of this by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department Wednesday, the same day Westmont and UCSB officials were apparently told their students had nothing to do with the case.

Sheriff Brown needs to explain why it was OK to let the school officials know this in private while keeping the public in the dark. Westmont College has suffered through days of public outrage as a result of information presented at Tuesday’s news conference. That could have been easily corrected.

Sheriff Brown not only needs to provide Westmont College with an apology for the way this matter has been handled, but to clear up the record as soon as possible.

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