Students

After Killings in Oregon, Colleges Face Threats — and Take No Chances

October 11, 2015

EKU Police
Bathroom-wall graffiti that threatened to "kill all by 10-8-15" prompted Eastern Kentucky U. to shut down its campus this past week — one of several such threats on campuses across the country that few leaders felt could be written off as hoaxes.
Not long ago, a threat scrawled on a bathroom wall probably wouldn’t have provoked the panic that spread like wildfire across Eastern Kentucky University last week.

But the graffiti vowing to "kill all by 10-8-15" surfaced just days after a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College, in rural Oregon, left 10 people dead.

Similar threats have cropped up on campuses nationwide, some of them undoubtedly copycat crimes by troubled people craving attention. Few people last week were ready to assume they were hoaxes.

"After Oregon, everyone was on edge," said Eastern Kentucky’s president, Michael T. Benson.

The university’s response, which included canceling classes and shutting down the campus for a few days, reflects how seriously higher-education officials are taking threats that might have been dismissed back when a student calling in a bomb threat was seen as probably trying to avoid a test. The ready availability of guns has many people worried that a routine fistfight could escalate to murder.

Last Monday morning, after the graffiti came to the attention of campus officials, Mr. Benson assembled his security team and started sending out a string of public-safety alerts that continued throughout the week to students, faculty, and staff to offer reassurance and seek cooperation.

The first alert, issued at 6:27 a.m., stated that the campus police were "investigating a report of bathroom graffiti with threatening language" and asked people to take several safety precautions, urging them "to be vigilant in ensuring the safety of themselves and their fellow Colonels."

But by then, social media had exploded with conversations that, while absent any specific threats, further alarmed campus security officials. "As people get more and more agitated," Mr. Benson said, "there’s no amount of communication we can release that will quell that."

It wasn’t the first time a note like that had appeared. A similar scrawl on a bathroom wall in February read: "bringing gun to here 2-11-15 dead students."

Some of this past week’s chatter took place on 4chan, an anonymous chat site where the Oregon shooter allegedly forecast the shootings. Mr. Benson referred to that site as the "cesspool of the media" — a place where antigovernment rants and threats are common.

"By Tuesday night the chatter had reached a fever pitch," Mr. Benson said, "and all of the hysteria was causing students to feel less safe coming to campus."

On Wednesday morning campus officials decided to cancel classes through the weekend and to close the campus on Thursday and Friday. Doing so was a "tremendous inconvenience," he said, but it was the only option he felt comfortable with. "You never know if people are serious or just trying to get a reaction, but we weren’t about to wait and find out."

Some of the many military veterans on the campus offered to help keep students safe — a proposal that caused him more alarm than reassurance. "While I appreciated their expressions of support," the president said, "we don’t want to deputize people to become vigilantes."

Violence and Threats

Even as Mr. Benson was describing the chain of events that led to his campus’s closure on Friday, other institutions were being rocked by actual violence.

One person was killed and three were injured in a shooting at Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff. The police said the shooting, early Friday morning, had begun as a fight between two groups of students.

Hours later, Texas Southern University was put on lockdown and classes were canceled after two students were shot in a housing complex at the edge of the campus, in Houston. One person was killed and another wounded in that shooting, and the police said two people had been detained.

The Kentucky threat was one of several that campus-security officials wrestled with this past week.

Southern Oregon University canceled all classes on Wednesday after a threatening note appeared, also on a bathroom wall.

The University of Delaware learned of a post, also on 4chan, warning people to stay away from the campus on Monday. A reply to the post noted that there would be hundreds of people on the campus green at 10 a.m. that day. The campus’s police chief, Patrick Ogden, alerted the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which traced the original post to a teenager in Ohio who investigators said had no apparent intention of carrying out the threat.

Meanwhile, campuses across Philadelphia were on alert after the FBI notified them that an online post, again on 4chan, had threatened violence at an unspecified Philadelphia-area college or university.

"On October 5, 2015 at 1:00 p.m. CT, a fellow robot will take up arms against a university near Philadelphia," the post reportedly read. "His cries will be heard, his victims will cower in fear, and the strength of the Union will decay a little more."

At Temple University, the campus-safety office issued a statement on Sunday, October 4, assuring students that it had stepped up security precautions and urging people to report any suspicious activities. Campus officials said the threat was too vague to justify canceling all classes, but some professors did so anyway.

At Drexel University, also in Philadelphia, a public-safety alert noted that, since the Oregon shooting, "the FBI has seen similar social-media postings throughout the country." It mentioned that the university had increased security patrols and would be requiring students and employees to use campus-identification cards to enter buildings.

Greater Vigilance

Campuses have been forced to be much more vigilant since the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, which left 33 people dead.

"One of the things that has changed across the country is that different people across the campus are coordinating and exchanging information about what a person is up to," said William F. Taylor, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and chief of police at San Jacinto College, in Texas.

Growing numbers of institutions have threat- or behavioral-assessment teams that meet regularly to discuss, for instance, what to do about a student who has an angry confrontation with a resident adviser or makes threatening rants on social media. Someone from campus security might recognize that the student was involved in a brawl, or an English professor might recall that he wrote a disturbing paper. Together they might decide that the threat has escalated to the point that the student should be brought in for a psychological evaluation or even suspended.

"Over the last several years, campuses have implemented more-consistent and systematic practices to identify and manage threats," said Gene Deisinger, a managing partner at Sigma Threat Management Associates.

That includes screening social media for keywords that might spell trouble.

"Campuses are under very close scrutiny from students, parents, the public at large, and government," Mr. Deisinger said, "and they’re more inclined to make decisions that they won’t look back on after the fact and regret."

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.