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Black student criticizes WWU for not taking threats seriously

Video: Student president says WWU not taking threats seriously

Western Washington University Associated Students President Belina Seare, center, talks about being threatened recently over the internet and the university’s response during a press conference at the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center in Bellingham
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Western Washington University Associated Students President Belina Seare, center, talks about being threatened recently over the internet and the university’s response during a press conference at the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center in Bellingham

A Western Washington University student who said she was threatened with sexual violence and death criticized the university and campus police for not doing enough to protect her and other students of color.

Belina Seare, who is president of WWU’s Associated Students, and community activists made the accusations Wednesday, Nov. 25, during a news conference at the Whatcom Peace & Justice Center in Bellingham.

“Late Sunday night, early Monday morning, I was made aware of malicious comments being made about me on social media. Some of these comments were racially charged death threats and threats of sexual violence against me. These attacks have threatened my sense of safety, and I have continued to learn of hateful comments being made up until today,” said Seare, who was the only student to speak at the conference.

When she met with campus police, “I was told there was not much they could do.”

University President Bruce Shepard canceled classes Tuesday, after reading anonymous social media posts on Yik Yak that he said targeted students of color, possibly because they brought up the idea of replacing the school’s Viking mascot.

They’re not taking these threats seriously.

Junga Souvedar, with the Racial Justice Coalition

University officials said hate speech and threats were directed at specific students. The posts are being investigated as a hate crime by university and Bellingham police, officials said. They said they were inferring a link to the mascot proposal but weren’t 100 percent certain.

“Progress continues in the police investigation on hate speech and threats directed at Western students,” WWU vice presidents said in a statement Wednesday. “As part of its criminal investigation, University Police have served a warrant on the Yik Yak social media platform seeking information on those who made threats via Yik Yak. Other threats are similarly being investigated.”

Students are on Thanksgiving break. Classes resume Monday, Nov. 30.

Rosalinda Guillen, who is part of the Racial Justice Coalition based in Bellingham, said during the news conference on Wednesday that campus police should be held accountable.

They’re asking for a review of how campus police respond to student concerns and how the department is structured.

Advocates said posts on social media threatened black students and individual women of color who were campus leaders with sexual and gun violence. They said the students were rebuffed when they asked campus police for help Monday night, Nov. 23.

Guillen said the students had asked for round-the-clock security and people to protect them and were told, in part, that “it’s too costly.”

“They’re not taking these threats seriously,” said Junga Souvedar, who also is a member of the Racial Justice Coalition.

In response Wednesday, Western officials said: “Individual students who were the direct targets of hate speech and threats have been offered enhanced police protection,” adding that patrols and security on and around campus have been increased.

“We feel that the police protection offered to these individuals was appropriate and have full confidence in University Police,” WWU spokesman Paul Cocke said. “The university cares deeply about the safety of students.”

The threats against students are part of a larger pattern, according to Seare.

Why do we have to choose between our education and our safety?

Belina Seare, president of WWU’s Associated Students

“As many of you know, this was not an isolated incident. These are threats that were being made against me as a black female student, and are reflective of our campus climate, and the continuous violence enacted on black and brown students and communities across the nation and the world,” she said.

She added: “Why do we have to choose between our education and our safety? Why do we continue to be dismissed and told we’re overreacting as we watch our communities die? When will our experience be not just about surviving, but thriving?”

Community advocates said students were targeted mainly on Yik Yak. They also provided printouts from anonymous posts made Saturday on a thread about the Viking mascot on the site called 4chan.

One showed a picture of Seare wearing a T-shirt that reads “Unapologetically Black” and a post that reads, “Here’s one of the (racial slur) who started this whole thing.”

Another post reads that “these (expletive) losers need to be strung up to trees and killed.”

According to an article in the university student newspaper, the Western Front, 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.

Advocates said they were building a timeline of events and going through hundreds of screen shots taken from social media.

“This is something really serious,” said Maru Mora Villalpando, of Latino Advocacy. “We really hope that people of color feel safe, and the fact that students who have been here for some years don’t feel safe speaks volumes on the kind of white supremacy we live in here in Bellingham.”

Reporter Caleb Hutton contributed to this story. Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

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