SEATTLE – Most, but not all, students returned to a Washington state university Monday as police arrested a 19-year-old accused of making racial threats against black students and others on social media that shut down the campus last week.
Western Washington University police in Bellingham arrested the male student on campus and booked him into jail on suspicion of felony malicious harassment. The student has been suspended and banned from campus pending the outcome of legal proceedings and the university’s student conduct process, officials said in a news release.
At a public forum Monday about the racist remarks, one student said she had to force herself to come to the school to speak about the threats.
“Frankly, I’m exhausted. This isn’t an ‘if’ but ‘when they come after you’ situation. I’m upset that Western let it get to this point,” said Lulu Sapigao, adding that students have been saying for a long time that they don’t feel safe on campus. “I’m upset that we’re told to use the buddy system, and that’s the only way that we can maybe have safety.”
Administrators cancelled classes last Tuesday, the day before the scheduled Thanksgiving break, after learning about the remarks that included threats of violence against the student body president, who is black.
The university is working with Yik Yak, an anonymous social media platform popular among college students, to turn over the names of the commenters, who posted pictures of the student body president, a gun and references to lynching and nooses. Officials said the student arrested Monday has been linked to a threat posted on the social media platform and that university police are continuing to investigate.
The long stream of 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 several student leaders suggested that the mascot is racist.
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.
At the campus forum, university President Bruce Shepard expressed concern for the student leader targeted specifically. He said he expects the people who posted the comments to likely say they were just trying to be funny and didn’t intend to hurt anybody.
“What we saw posted was merely a more public, and perhaps a bit more extreme, display of what our students of colour experience daily,” Shepard said. “There is nothing funny here; these are forms of violence. It is why people understandably walk our campus in fear.”
The forum was the first step in a new campus “listening project” to address racial tensions on this usually quiet campus of about 15,000 students, nearly a quarter of whom are from minority groups.
Political science Professor Vernon Damani Johnson read a long statement on behalf of students whom he said are afraid to return to campus. It accuses the university of sacrificing the well-being and safety of a few students for the learning of the privileged minority.
Some students in Washington returned to class the same day the University of Chicago cancelled activities over an online threat that appeared to be motivated by the shooting of a black teenager last year, federal authorities said.
A man threatened to kill 16 white male students or staff at the college, days after a video was released showing an officer shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times, according to a criminal complaint.
Associated Press writer Lisa Baumann contributed to this report.