A university e-mail alert about a backside-slapping bicyclist is quickly taking on a life of its own online.
After two women reported Wednesday morning that they were slapped on the backside by a man on a bicycle, Ball State University, in Muncie, Ind., sent a public safety e-mail to all students and faculty.
"University police are reporting two complaints of assault following incidents at approximately 8:00 a.m. this morning, April 7, in the vicinity of Worthen Arena and the Student Health Center. According to Assistant Chief Robert Fey, two women walking in the area reported being slapped on their buttocks by a white male as he rode past them on a bicycle," the e-mail said.
"Police Chief Gene Burton also took the opportunity to again stress to all members of the university community that they remain alert to their surroundings at all times and, especially at night or in early morning darkness, refrain from traveling alone," the message continued.
It wasn't long before an online debate about the seriousness of the threat flared up on Facebook.
Ball State University's President: 'Disappointed' in Student Reaction
In the two days since the incidents, a Facebook group mocking the e-mail has amassed more than 8,000 members. A tongue-in-cheek YouTube video, featuring an original song about the alert, has also sprung up, and the user-generated Web site Urban Dictionary now includes an entry for "Ball State Butt Slapper."
But others around the campus are concerned that these light-hearted efforts may trivialize the incidents, as an opposition group on Facebook, urging students to take the threat seriously, has attracted more than 250 members.
In an e-mail to students and faculty Friday morning, the university's president affirmed that "assault is not something to laugh about" and expressed her dismay with some of the students' reactions.
"I am disappointed by the reaction of a portion of the student body. The creation of a Facebook page mocking these incidents and inviting similar behavior for fun goes beyond poor judgment," wrote Ball State University President Jo Ann M. Gora. "Such mimicking and mocking has the effect of condoning strangers to violate personal space and touch others without warning."
Kay Bales, vice president of student affairs for Ball State, said the university was surprised by the online response, but expects that many members of the Facebook group mocking the e-mail are not actually Ball State students. She also said the notice was not meant to convey urgency, only to raise awareness of the situation and mitigate rumors.
"Given the circumstances and the fact that we did have someone who was going around hitting women, we felt it was important to alert people about the area and also if they had witnessed something, to please come forward," she said.
Urban Dictionary Includes Entry for 'Ball State Ass Slapper'
The Wednesday e-mail has sparked a lively debate online, with one side poking fun at the "emergency situation" and the other arguing that the slapping incidents constituted real harassment that should be taken seriously.
In an e-mail, the student who founded the Facebook group "The Ball State Ass Slapper" said he doesn't condone the reported actions but didn't think they necessitated a public safety notice.
"My first thought was, 'Do we really need an emergency e-mail for this?'" the student, who asked to be identified only as the founder of the group, said in the e-mail. "Granted, what happened with the 'backside-slapping' incident is definitely wrong and should not have happened. I didn't think it was grounds for an Emergency Public Safety Notification."
In addition to posting comments on the page's wall, some people who share the Facebook page's position have taken their sentiments elsewhere on the Web. One student posted a "Ball State Ass Slapper Song" on YouTube. Others have started selling T-shirts, buttons, hats and more with icons of the infamous slapping bicyclist.
Someone else added an entry to the Urban Dictionary.
"A man of mythical status and legendary multitasking ability, the Ball State Ass Slapper is a rising star in the shady world of Mobile Bicycle Ass Slapping (MBAS)," the entry says. "Considered by many a hero and by some a vigilante, the Ball State Ass Slapper is doing everything he can to keep Ball State safe from those who would have us believe that asses are not to be slapped."
But others insist the incidents shouldn't be taken lightly. The Facebook group "We Oppose Members of the Ball State Ass Slappers Group -- It is Not a Joke" has not accrued as many members thus far, but some of the university community say they are concerned about the threat.
Megan Burns, a Ball State University sophomore, said she thinks many members of the university community agree with the site's sentiments, they just don't feel comfortable stepping forward.
"A lot of the people who don't think it should be made fun of aren't necessarily standing up and speaking out about it," she said. "I think a lot of people just keep to themselves."
Burns, a criminal justice major and peer victim advocate, said she thinks that the slapping reports should be taken seriously as assault and supported the school's decision.
"I thought that it was necessary for them to send something out," she said.