Western Washington University suspended all classes Tuesday because of an alleged incident of hate speech targeting students of color.

Share story

In an unprecedented step, Western Washington University suspended all classes Tuesday because of what President Bruce Shepard called “disturbing and very threatening” hate speech, posted on social media and targeting students of color. (Update, Wednesday, Nov. 25: Some students and activists have criticized WWU’s response to the threats.)

Law enforcement is investigating the incident as a possible hate crime. It is believed to be the first time classes at a higher-education institution in Washington have been suspended because of a threat on social media.

Students gathering in Red Square at WWU in response to this morning’s news of hate threats. (Coral Garnick / The Seattle Times)

Shepard, who made the decision, said he was alerted by employees at the Bellingham school who saw the threat first on the anonymous social-media phone application Yik Yak. His message on the school’s website detailed threats he said he viewed as crimes, and pledged to go after whoever made them.

He said that the target was students of color, and that he decided to suspend classes because he was concerned about the safety of all students. Tuesday was to be the last day of classes before the Thanksgiving break.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“There are any number of statements out there that are disturbing and very threatening,” Shepard said of the social-media posts. “We do not know what was in the mind of that person, of course; that is one reason we are investigating it. So, who was that person’s target? We can’t say until we locate that person and interrogate them.”

WWU campus police are taking the lead on the investigation, with assistance from the Bellingham Police. WWU spokesman Paul Cocke said police had determined that “the threats received do fall into the category of a crime.”

Shepard confirmed that some of the hate speech appears to be connected to a suggestion made by some students that the school’s mascot, a Viking, be changed, saying it isn’t racially inclusive.

“If all you see is the threat, you don’t know what has motivated that,” he added. “You can’t get inside their minds. So, I’m not going to jump to conclusions.”

Cocke said a few students of color received direct threats, but officials did not release details. On social media, one running thread made references to lynching and the Ku Klux Klan, and used photos of some student-government leaders that appeared to have been lifted off WWU’s website.

On its Facebook page, the WWU Black Student Union warned its members to “PLEASE STAY OFF CAMPUS” because threats had been made “directly toward certain Black folks and the larger students of color population at Western.”

Public high schools cancel classes from time to time in light of threats, but officials at the state’s other public universities said they did not know of another instance in which a public university in Washington suspended classes because of a hate threat. Shepard, who has been a university president or chancellor for the past 15 years, said he has never done so before.

“I made the decision to do it here because I believe our students’ feelings of safety are very important, and we must listen to what they are telling us and how they feel,” he said.

In a meeting Tuesday afternoon, faculty and staff talked about the next steps they can take in showing support for Western’s students.

Many wished to issue letters of support but decided to wait to respond to the threats until after the students themselves responded.

“We are going to wait for our students to lead us in the right direction,” said Nick Sanchez, who heads a president’s task force on equity, inclusion and diversity.

It’s not the first time Western has been at the center of a controversy over race. In April 2014, during a convocation speech, Shepard said that Western was too white.

Conservative blogs, publications and commentators picked up on the story and were highly critical of Shepard’s comments, and some hate graffiti appeared on campus.

Shepard — who is white — did not back down. And hundreds of people marched on campus in support of the president.

Now, with this new incident, “there’s a feeling that this is a teachable moment — ironically, and, perhaps, tragically,” said WWU professor Vernon Johnson, who is African American and serves on the equity task force.

The school’s enrollment this fall is 73.2 percent white; blacks make up 3.4 percent of enrollment, Hispanic/Latino 7.1 percent, Asian American 11.3 percent and Native American 3 percent. That’s a small change from 2014, when 74.5 percent of students were white.

It can be difficult to prove that hate speech constitutes a crime, said Caitlin Ring Carlson, a Seattle University assistant professor who studies hate speech on social media. “That’s what’s so tricky, or interesting, about this — there’s this line between protected expression and incitement to violence,” she said.

The anonymity of Yik Yak is likely no protection. The social-media site has revealed the identity of a user to law enforcement before, she said.

Shepard’s email canceling classes went out after 6 a.m. Tuesday, and most students got the word and stayed away. But by 11 a.m., more than 40 students from Campus Christian Fellowship (CCF) and other campus ministries had congregated in Red Square in response to the news.

“That is a really awful thing, and this is the way we want to respond,” said Shelby Duffy, 19, after singing “Amazing Grace” with other students. She is a white, freshman pre-med student.

Cameron Harris, a 2012 graduate and a community adviser for CCF who is African American, came to school after the music stopped to support students and show that hate doesn’t have to be a deterrent.

“You should be able to study today, you should be able to have class, you should be able to feel safe,” he said. “As a person of color, I guess I thought it would be even more tragic if there were no faces of people of color on campus because of these threats and hate speech.”

Sergio Sanchez, a junior computer-science major from Mount Vernon, said he is glad Shepard suspended classes before the situation escalated.

“Zero tolerance,” he said. But he still came to campus Tuesday to go to the gym, saying he didn’t feel nervous.

C.J. Schiller, a junior at Western, said the incident was “a very big deal, and canceling classes shows how big a deal the school is making of it.” She said she thought Shepard had handled the situation well, and that it has “opened my eyes up” to the idea that Western might not be safe for students of color. Schiller is white.

Shepard, in a recent blog post, noted that issues surrounding the school’s mascot have arisen from time to time, and he welcomed discussion about it.

But Shepard also said he did not intend to change the mascot, at least while he is still president. He is retiring next year.

The mascot issue may have been sparked by a survey that a communications professor, Michael Karlberg, was developing to see how students felt about a specific depiction of the school’s logo. The graphic shows an angry Viking warrior, and Karlberg said the survey was only meant to test that specific logo.

In his statement, Shepard said there was no threat to general campus safety, but added: “I trust you stand with me on this: A threat to any one of us is an attack on all of us.”