WWU cancels classes after threats made to students of color

Western Washington University officials canceled classes Tuesday, Nov. 24, after reading social media posts they said targeted students of color, possibly because they proposed replacing the school’s Viking mascot.

“We don’t have 100 percent confidence in that,” WWU spokesman Paul Cocke said of the link to the mascot. “The timing infers it.”

In a letter to the campus community sent out a little after 6 a.m. Tuesday, President Bruce Shepard said campus and Bellingham police are investigating the social media posts as a hate crime.

“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 said in the letter. “These are likely crimes in my view.”

Shepard said a police investigation is ongoing. If the person or people behind the social media posts are Western students, they likely would be expelled, he said.

Cocke added: “There was both hate speech and threats directed at specific students. We’re erring on the side of safety here.”

While classes were canceled, the university remained open.

In response to the hate speech, members of WWU’s Black Student Union posted a warning on their Facebook page.

“Please stay off campus!! As threats have been made directly towards certain Black folks and the larger students of color population at Western,” it reads.

WWU’s Ethnic Student Center, on its Facebook page, said the issue wasn’t just about a mascot.

“The issue is that racism is still prevalent more than ever and folks in our community have been feeling unsafe because of it, way beyond today,” the center wrote.

Western officials declined to say how many students were threatened and what the social media posts said, because police were investigating.

Although there is no general threat to campus safety, several students of color told Shepard this week they feared being on campus because of the social media posts.

“A threat to any one of us is an attack on all of us,” Shepard said in the letter.

Red Square gathering

In response, a group called Campus Christian Fellowship gathered in a circle at WWU’s Red Square on Tuesday morning to sing songs and to pray. They invited others on campus to join the circle, which widened and grew to more than 40 students.

“We are out here because of the hate speech,” said Jenessa Ho, 19, a sophomore at Western. “We wanted to spread God’s love and His peace and bring down His spirit on the school.”

Lori Baca, an 18-year-old freshman who’s part of The Inn campus ministry, said students were at Red Square to “sing together, to come together as Christians to try to do what little we can to lift the environment and lift the spirit here on campus.”

The hate speech appeared on the location-based social media app Yik Yak, where posts are anonymous, Shepard said Tuesday in an interview with The Bellingham Herald.

Users post texting-length messages that appear to those in close geographic proximity. It’s a popular app on college campuses, but it’s also been banned from some because users have posted racist messages and threats.

Because users need to be within a narrow geographic area to post items, the threats most likely came from Bellingham.

Evelyn Sides, a 19-year-old sophomore at WWU, said she read the debate about the Viking mascot on Yik Yak. At first the posts seemed harmless, she said, and then they escalated into comments that targeted one of the students based on her race.

Sides wished she had said something when the posts first appeared.

On Tuesday, she disagreed with others who said the university was over-reacting in canceling classes.

“This is a serious issue in the U.S.,” Sides said, referring to hate crimes against people of color. “I think it’s also a fact of checking your privilege. You don’t know how scary it is because you weren’t the one targeted. President Shepard was right when he said if one person is targeted, we’re all targeted.”

Shepard said he was made aware of the posts Monday afternoon and then again around 2:15 a.m. Tuesday, when he learned that these “disquieting” comments on Yik Yak were continuing.

“You don’t make these decisions lightly,” he said of suspending classes.

Mascot change suggested

According to a Western Front article, the conversation about the mascot — which has represented the university since 1923 — began last summer. Those supporting a change said the Viking was too masculine, too violent and didn’t reflect students of color. They advocated for a more inclusive mascot.

In a lengthy blog post written Sunday, Shepard said he did not see evidence of widespread concern about the Viking mascot and did not foresee Western changing it.

However, he did welcome discussion about it.

“Poised at the cusp of what I believe to be a multi-faceted turning point in public higher education as well as in the society and culture we both reflect and lead, does a Eurocentric and male mascot point to the future we wish to embrace? Or to the past we would move beyond? And, is this, then, an image all can identify with?” he wrote.

Western begins its break for the Thanksgiving holiday on Wednesday. Classes will resume Monday, Nov. 30.

“You hope in situations like this that you use a crisis as a positive learning experience, and I think that’s happening,” Shepard said in an interview of the next steps for the university.

He said Western’s faculty and staff met Tuesday to figure out how they could help, adding that they were opening their homes to students who didn’t feel safe on campus. And he noted the group at Red Square.

Among them was Jose Avalos, a 20-year-old senior, who said he was there to pray for those who were hurt and for those who did the hurting.

“All the caring, all that love for other people is coming from God,” he said, after students had made their way through songs that included “Amazing Grace” and “One Thing Remains.”

Later, a contemplative Sides said, “Spread love, not hate.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

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