The arrest came on the same day the university resumed classes, and students, faculty and staff discussed hate speech, racism and security during a town-hall meeting.
Western Washington University police have arrested a 19-year-old student on suspicion of malicious harassment, a felony, in connection with threats made to students of color on the social-media site Yik Yak last week.
The university identified the studentas Tysen Campbell in a message sent through the school’s alert system, which goes to students, faculty, staff and parents who sign up. The information was also posted on the school’s website. The Seattle Times usually does not name suspects until they have been charged but is doing so in this case because Campbell’s name has been widely released.
Campbell’s mother, Lisa Concidine, said in a phone interview that her son told her he made a post that was “sarcastic because he was annoyed by all of the uproar,” but then he deleted it right away. She said she did not have more information on the content of the post or why he might have made it.
On Monday, she was looking for answers to help her understand why her son was arrested. The crime, malicious harassment, is the state’s hate-crime statute. She said Campbell called her while detained, telling her “he was in some trouble, and he’s going to be OK.”
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Concidine was shocked by the news, describing Campbell as respectful and a great student and athlete who has a group of good-natured friends. She said he’s a pole-vaulter on the WWU track team. According to his Facebook page, he attended Granite Falls High School in Snohomish County.
“He’s never been violent, he’s never racist, he’s a star kid,” Concidine said. “If he was a kid that was always on the edge, I wouldn’t be surprised, but this has taken me by surprise.”
When she received notice that WWU canceled classes last Tuesday because of threats against students of color on social media, she said she did not expect someone she knows to be potentially involved.
“I guess kids need to be really careful with what they post,” Concidine said. “I know he can be funny; he’s got a sense of humor, but I don’t know what happened.”
Campbell, who is white, was booked into the Whatcom County Jail, university officials said. They also said he has been suspended and barred from campus.
University officials said Campbell allegedly wrote “Let’s lynch her” on Yik Yak. That comment led to his arrest.
In the meantime, officials said the university’s investigation of other threatening messages targeting students is ongoing.
Yik Yak anonymity
Many of them were made on Yik Yak, the free smartphone app popular on college campuses but also controversial, because people can post anonymously.
The posts included references to lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan, and photos of guns and bullets. The threats were directed at all students of color, but also at specific students — especially Western’s student-body president, Belina Seare, and student Vice President for Diversity Abby Ramos.
Western is the latest college to face difficult conversations about race, during a season of tension on campuses across the country.
The University of Missouri brought campus race issues to the forefront, with the president resigning after students protested, saying he did not listen to their concerns about several racist incidents. Two people were later arrested for allegedly making death threats against black students.
Protests have since spread to hundreds of other campuses, including the University of Washington.
And Monday in Chicago, police arrested a 21-year-old black man in connection with social-media death threats against students and staff at the University of Chicago to avenge the death of a teenager killed by a police officer last year. Officials had closed that campus Monday.
At Western on Monday, university spokesman Paul Cocke declined to say why Campbell’s name was released before he had been charged, other than to say WWU has done so in previous, unrelated cases, such as robberies.
He said he could not discuss the evidence in the case that pointed to Campbell.
The arrest came the same day that faculty and staff held a town hall-style meeting to decry systemic racism, which they described as endemic at the university. And in the aftermath of last week’s canceled classes, some students have criticized the school’s response to the threats, saying the administration didn’t go far enough.
Monday was the first day of regular classes after the incident, and the meeting, attended by more than 300 and live-streamed online, was the first in what administrators say will be a series of meetings and discussions on racism at Western.
Holding a photo of the nine black parishioners killed in a Charleston, S.C., church in June, moderator Karen Dade said the threats at Western — which included references to lynchings and a photo of a gun — “reminds me of the very real fear that I and others have for this campus.” Dade is the associate dean of the Woodring College of Education at Western.
WWU President Bruce Shepard, who’s been criticized by the targeted students for what they have characterized as a slow, inadequate response to the threats, offered an apology at Monday’s meeting to those students, as well as to faculty and staff.
He described the threats as “commonplace,” if a bit more extreme than what students of color experience daily.
Earlier, he has said some of the hate speech appeared to be connected to a suggestion from some students that the school’s mascot, a Viking, be changed, saying it isn’t racially inclusive.
The idea that racism is commonly expressed by students, faculty and staff at Western — a university of 15,000 students in Bellingham, one of the most liberal towns in Washington — was a theme among the five panelists (three faculty members, a staff member and a graduate student) and a handful of students who spoke during the comment period. No specific examples were given.
“There is no quick pill to fix racism; it’s a long, arduous battle,” said Larry Estrada, associate professor at Western’s Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies.
He described racism as “really embedded in the institution of higher education” — institutions that once accepted only white men and were “predicated on serving an elite part of society.”
Black students make up only about 3.4 percent of Western’s enrollment, although Estrada said diversity is more than a “numbers game” and also requires having students and faculty with different backgrounds and different attitudes.
White students make up about 73 percent of Western’s enrollment.
Vernon Damani Johnson, a political-science professor, said Western has made some progress in combating institutional racism, but that he worried the events of the past month will undermine those efforts, and cause many to believe there is no way to change the system.
He later broke with the panel’s format to read a statement and timeline, put together by students, that detailed the threats and the administration’s response.
Seare, the student-body president who was explicitly threatened with violence on social media, is one of his students, and Johnson read the statement because “the voice that’s been missing all week is our students.”
In their statement, the students described how, after the threats, campus police would offer only to have a patrol car drive by their off-campus residences more frequently, and told them Bellingham police couldn’t help because they were too busy. The students monitored the online comments and posts, and requested that the campus be shut down entirely to protect student employees and WWU staff.
The students described feeling like they had become “collateral damage” in an attempt to teach the rest of the student body about racism, and that they still fear returning to campus.
“It’s heartbreaking,” moderator Dade said.
Alex Ng, a panelist and graduate student in WWU’s master’s in teaching program, talked about “the disproportionate burden on students of color to educate the rest of campus … it feels unfair.” He said the university needs to find a way to spread that burden.
Dade described this as a moment of cultural shift for Western, and said it was “time to seize that moment if we’re really going to change our paradigm and change this university.”