From President Shepard: An Update

Dear Western Community:

Tuesday, we cancelled classes.   One priority has been our laser focus: overall safety of our campus and the safety of individuals subject to specific threats.  As I write this, we know of no imminent threat to the physical safety of Western's campus.  Our feelings of safety as a caring and empathetic community is another matter; please read on.

I have also heard your frustration at the incomplete and even seemingly contradictory messages you have received.  From me, and then hearing statements of others that seem to contradict what I have assured you. 

I take responsibility for that: there were certain details of the situation I was not at liberty to share out of concern for an on going police investigation.  Having consulted with public safety leadership, they this afternoon informed me that the investigation has advanced to the stage where I can offer more specifics.  So, I am now going to do so.

This message is lengthy for I endeavor to be comprehensive.   But, do hang on through the end, for I will get to steps that lie ahead.

Monday afternoon, I was on the way to Poulsbo for a speaking obligation when I received a phone call regarding some objectionable posts on asocial media application known as YikYak. I took the next I-5 off ramp and headed north, back to campus.   At 5:00 that evening, we assembled a group we refer to as the “threat assessment team.”

What were the posts?   The post of greatest concern to me was reported to be, “Let's lynch her” with the context, as reported to us, making clear that the “her” was AS President Belina Seare.  Driving south on I-5, that is what was first reported to me, and is what caused me to head for the first off ramp.

That post only remained visible for about 30 seconds, again as reported to us.  (Our assumption was that either the poster took it down or YikYak software recognized it as a violation of their standards and took it down.)   Although then unverifiable, we took that report 100% seriously; I am deeply appreciative of those who promptly brought this post to our attention.

There were other posts we reviewed.  These stayed up long enough to make screenshots, and we were able to review those screen shots.  Many, many pages.  Among the most objectionable and that I am now at liberty to share them with you, consider these:

  • “In protest, we should hang a bunch of nooses from trees like Viking used to kill Abbey monks.” 
  • Someone responds with “Absolutely not.” 
  • Then another post or comment is made that says, “Yeah, and we can all dress up in white cloaks and we can have black people play the monks!”

I trust you share my outrage when reading such language.  Please note, we do not know,at this point, if any of these posters have any affiliation with Western.

In that 5:00 meeting, we first discussed investigation of the YikYak posts.  Even before the 5:00 meeting, our campus police officers had obtained the opinion of the local prosecutor that a “let's lynch her” post might well constitute a crime.  Our police immediately informed YikYak of their obligation to preserve records in a matter of ongoing police investigation. 

We also sought the voluntary cooperation of YikYak but took steps in case that was not forthcoming. Preparation of a search warrant was made a top priority.  These require a judge's signature, and there is no guarantee of obtaining that. By the next morning, our law enforcement officers had the warrant prepared, signed by a judge, and delivered to YikYak. 

Under the law, YikYak has 20 days to comply; they have indicated they will be cooperative, and they have been so.  As I write this, we have not formally received the information sought via the search warrant although we expect it soon.  And, preliminary indications from YikYak support the general accuracy of the earlier report of a brief post mentioning lynching.  (The actual wording of the quickly disappearing post, our informal discussion with YikYak tells us,was “Lynch her” rather than “Let's lynch her.”) 

We appreciate the prompt cooperation YikYak has provided to date.  Once we receive full information from YikYak, please understand that considerable additional police work will be necessary to identify the posters and with no guarantee that those responsible can be certainly identified.

Do understand: campus codes of conduct are involved as well as possible criminal considerations.  Different expectations and rules of evidence apply.

Please also understand,and I think this may be the most important sentence I write: assuming we are able to “get” those making the posts, that still does almost nothing to address the very real long-term matters of campus climate that we, and universities across the country, must continually improve.

At the time of that first threat assessment meeting and through the remaining 24 hours, I was advised by law enforcement that the actual content of the posts should be kept confidential.  I did so, in my message to campus and in media interview after interview.  I am relieved to now be able to provide you with the detail.

We take the safety of all who are Western very seriously.  Consequently, we have brought together all the resources available to us.  It is the top priority of our campus safety officers. The Bellingham Police Department loaned us two detectives to assist our investigation, and the FBI has been involved. The FBI has reviewed our investigative steps and plans and have expressed full confidence in the ability of our local law enforcement colleagues to continue with the investigation.

During that first threat assessment meeting, conversation turned to the safety of AS President Belina Seare and AS VP for Diversity Abby Ramos.  They were in attendance at the meeting and were asked what would make them most secure.  We adjourned with the specification that campus security would work with them on what would best meet their needs.

When it came to how to openly communicate about these developments with campus, I felt it essential that I send a message to campus about the posts and the steps the university was taking. Remember, this is about 5:00 p.m., Monday night.

I proposed that I draft a message to campus that I would provide to Belina and Abby by 9:00 a.m. the next morning, asking that they have comments back to me a couple of hours later so I could then revise as appropriate.  At that point, the purpose was to let campus know of what had happened on YikYak and what was being done.  The thought of cancelling classes had never been raised.

As we were breaking up, I gave both Belina and Abby a business card on which I had written my personal cell phone number.  I asked each to call me if, for any reason,they found the university's actions unsatisfactory.

I went home and drafted the message to campus for review the next morning.  Then the situation moved well beyond where we had left it at 6:00 p.m.

Specifically, I received a phone call on that private number at 2:14 a.m. from Ms. Belina Seare.  She reported that disturbing posts were continuing on YikYak.  VP for Diversity Abby Ramos emailed me some screen shots.  I immediately brought a threat assessment team together.  By 2:45 a.m., we were assembling in the campus police facilities to reconsider the threat.

There were derogatory emails but, this time, no talk of lynching or nooses.  The most frightening was a photo of a handgun with a bullet being injected.  Very, very scary.  But, from the law enforcement perspective,this was permitted speech that was not connected to earlier issues.  It was part of a thread discussing concealed carry, safety training, and such.  There were screen shots of other YikYak statements provided, thankfully, by Ms. Ramos.In the view of law enforcement, those screenshots provided did not contain imminent or actionable threats to particular individuals or threats of sexual violence.   That does not mean that there might not have been such statements, but we had seen none among the screen captures available to us.

After much discussion, I was advised by law enforcement – we had two agencies represented in this early Tuesday a.m. meeting – that, from the view of campus safety and in light of this additional information, there was still no need to cancel classes.

However, Ms. Seare and I had been able to communicate several times during those early morning hours. There was not the least shred of a doubt in my mind about the genuineness and the validity of the fears our students of color were experiencing.  We were approaching the deadline for a decision on cancelling classes and, hence, had no time to put in place any means for adequately addressing those critically important fears.  So, I decided to hit the “pause” button; we cancelled classes.

There's the confusion several of you have mentioned to me.  Holding aside those for whom a specific threat had been made, the general campus was safe from a law enforcement perspective.  However, with talk of lynching, nooses, and such, there were absolutely concrete reasons for many of our students to fear coming on our campus.  We could continue to operate the general administrative functions of the university. But, how could we require our students to be in class under such a pall of understandable fear?

More simply put, here's the conundrum: We must be clear on the immediate situation while also fully embracing the reality for our students of color in a world where prejudice and hate exist.

Western has been in the lead in taking most seriously the ways in which our campus is differently experienced – frighteningly differently – by racial and ethnic minorities, women, and LGBT individuals compared to those in the current majority.  In that regard and we do benchmark this, we look only slightly better than our university peers.  While I have been and will continue to be criticized for the decision I made to cancel classes, I am proud to stand with Western in taking seriously the fears of our students of color.  A day of classes was lost.  But do think about how tied up in knots – for days – some universities have recently become because they led with a tin ear and initially did nothing.

Our conversation that early Tuesday morning then turned to protecting Ms Seare's safety.  There was a report that Belina had requested the same level of protection the police required that I accept when white supremacists repeatedly threatened my life last year.  We all agreed that that level of protection should be provided.  This included 24x7 police protection.  We also decided to offer relocation to a local motel for Belina and others who might be sharing a residence with her.  At about 5:30 a.m., I called Belina, reaching her voice mail:  I reported we were cancelling classes; thanked her for bringing the matter directly to my attention; and let her know we would like to provide the level of protection she had requested (the same imposed on me), and that our campus safety officers would be in touch to work that out. 

Three more efforts were made in the next 12 hours to contact Belina in order to make the security arrangements, leaving voice mail each time.  As I write this, we have yet to receive any responses to those messages.

I did hear, second or third hand, that use of campus police was not acceptable to Ms. Seare, that private security needed to be arranged.  I do not know if that is true for, again, none of us have heard directly from Belina.  “Private security,” to my mind, does not raise particularly attractive images. Our officers have best-of-class training; long and scrutinized resumes of established professionalism; extensive capabilities to immediately mobilize other law enforcement support in the event it is needed; and access to extensive local, state, and national intelligence capabilities.  To provide anything less than the best possible protection for our students would be an abdication of our responsibilities for their well-being.

After my decision was announced to cancel classes, about 270 faculty and staff received a vile email the next morning.  It was of the “white genocide,” “white supremacist” genre that those of us in the forefront of these issues routinely receive.  Please be assured that it was immediately brought to the attention of the FBI.  We also sought to determine if the message had been “targeted” at faculty and staff of color; we found no such indications.  We believe the sender resides in the mid-West.  Do not be surprised if messages such as the one I am now sending generate more of the same.  These miscreants cruise the Internet looking for opportunities to try to instill fear.

So how do we react to such email?  We take threats seriously.   First, we implement increased campus security.  We did that the last time around when the campus was targeted by such hate groups.  Plans are in place to do the same come Monday.  For reasons I am sure you will understand, we do not talk the specifics of such plans.  To do so could undermine their effectiveness.

If, receiving such hate-filled white supremacist messages, we cower in fear, those trying to jerk us around, from thousands of miles away, achieve what they desire.  The last time this happened at Western, we used the threats as an opportunity to reassert our commitments to the core values from which we will not be dissuaded, certainly not by bullies hiding within the anonymity of the Internet.  I believe it is time to again do so.

What should we do, looking forward?  I welcome your best thinking.  Here is some of mine: 

  • As noted, campus security has been beefed up.
  • The investigation of the YikYak posts is making significant progress and continues to move ahead full speed.
  • The effort to reach out to and provide protection for those specifically threatened is ongoing.
  • The Counseling Center remains available to provide support, guidance, and opportunities to share.
  • Any threats you learn of should be reported to 360-650-3555. The anonymous tipline is 360-650-SAFE (7233).
  • We are establishing a “rumor control” site on Viking Village.  Not up tonight but it soon will be.  Should you hear rumors or have questions, go to that site and share the rumor or question.  Those responsible for campus security are monitoring that site and will post responses for all to see.
  • It is our current unequivocal assessment, guided by law enforcement officials, that the campus will be safe for us to resume classes come Monday.  We have a threat to one person and we are aggressively pursuing that threat.  We know of no other threats specific to individuals or to the campus as a whole. We continue to monitor social media as well as other intelligence sources and, should the situation change, we will act as appropriate.
  • Academic Affairs is working with leadership of the Faculty Senate to determine policies should safety concerns lead some of our students to decide to avoid campus.
  • I have charged a group to share ideas about how, as a campus, we can recover, respond, learn, and grow through this experience.  We will convene on Sunday to discuss their recommendations.  As students return to campus, those involved in the planning will expand.  Stay tuned.

As a social scientist I know the strong empirical bases for the unequivocal conclusion that our society remains characterized by potent forces of racism, structural oppression, systemic inequity, and exclusion.  Our university, inextricably embedded as we are in that society, is affected by those societal forces.  And, higher education's own culture and organization cannot help but also reflect those same problematic attributes.  As I always preach though: there is nothing wrong in acknowledging that there are problems here at Western; we should only be embarrassed if we try to sweep them under the rug.  Or, do nothing about them.

That doing something about them has long been the Western way continues to be a source of pride for me in being a part of Western.  I hope you may feel the same.