SEATTLE — After a racist thread on social media sparked outrage on a quiet Washington state campus, college officials sent students home a day early for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Western Washington University sent out an alert cancelling classes and an email to students just after 6 a.m. Tuesday from President Bruce Shepard. It is unknown if the people who posted the threats are students at the state university in Bellingham, but the posts were made from a phone located within 10 miles of campus, Shepard said.
“I need to be very clear here: we are not talking the merely insulting, rude, offensive commentary that trolls and various other lowlifes seem free to spew, willy nilly, although there has been plenty of that, too. No, this was hate speech,” Shepard wrote in an email posted on the university website.
A series of threats against minorities were posted over the weekend on Yik Yak, an anonymous social media platform popular among college students.
The posts mentioned almost every ethnic group, including Blacks, Muslims, Jews and American Indians, blaming them for an effort on campus to debate changing the university’s mascot, a Viking. The threats came days after some student leaders suggested that the mascot is racist. The posts did not mention a specific action against the students.
Most of the online comments contained racist language and profanity, making fun of the mascot debate and the students who proposed it. One post called Black students crying babies and another complimented the school for having an “overtly Aryan” mascot.
The university of about 15,000 students boasts that nearly a quarter of its enrollees are from minority groups. The small campus located about 90 miles north of Seattle is known for its environmental education program. The college also sends more graduates into the Peace Corps than any other midsized university in the nation.
Law enforcement officials do not believe there is a threat to general campus security, but Shepard said a threat to any Western student is an attack on the whole college community. The decision to cancel classes was precautionary and to make sure students were safe, he said. The school/s Thanksgiving break officially begins Wednesday.
“We take the feelings of safety of our students very, very seriously,” he said.
Even with more debate and protests about racial issues sparking at colleges across the nation, such as the University of Missouri and Yale University, heated discourse is not common on this sleepy campus in the northwestern Washington woods.
“With disturbing social media content continuing through early this morning, students of color have advised me of their very genuine, entirely understandable, and heightened fear of being on campus,” Shepard said in his letter.
At Missouri, posts were made on social media threatening to shoot Black people after protests about racial issues on that campus. The posts followed the resignations of the University of Missouri system president and the chancellor. A White college student at a sister campus was later arrested for making a terrorist threat.
Shepard said debate about the Western Washington’s mascot has come up on occasion and he welcomed the discussion.
Some students do not believe a White European man is a good representation of their school, but Shepard, who is retiring at the end of this academic year, said he doesn’t plan to change the mascot.
Patrick Eckroth, a senior from Port Orchard, Washington, said there is a problem with racism at the school.
“The idea of having a critical conversation about our mascot and the reaction to that is a great illustration of the problem we have not just in our university, but in society,” said Eckroth, who is a member of the student government but said he was speaking personally, not as a student leader.
Dozens of students, who said they represented Christian groups affiliated with the school, gathered on campus just before noon Tuesday to pray against fear and hate.
Shepard said that a large percentage of students haven’t thought enough about race, society and social justice.
“I hope this is the beginning of something…a teachable moment.” he said.