- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 24, 2015

SEATTLE (AP) - Western Washington University canceled classes on Tuesday because of threats over the weekend against minorities posted on YikYak, an anonymous social media platform populated by college students.

The university sent out an alert and an email to students just after 6 a.m. from President Bruce Shepard. It is unknown if the people who posted the threats are students at the state university in Bellingham, but the posts were made from a phone located within 10 miles of campus, Shepard said.

“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 wrote in an email posted on the university website.

The posts mentioned almost every ethnic group, including blacks, Muslims, Jews and American Indians, blaming them for an effort on campus to debate changing the university’s mascot, a Viking. The threats came days after some student leaders suggested that the mascot is racist. The posts did not mention a specific action against the students.

The school of about 15,000 students boasts that nearly a quarter of its enrollees are from minority groups. The small campus located about 90 miles north of Seattle is known for its environmental education program. The college also sends more graduates into the Peace Corps than any other midsized university in the nation.

Law enforcement officials do not believe there is a threat to general campus security, but Shepard said a threat to any Western student is an attack on the whole college community. The decision to cancel classes was precautionary and the school wanted to make sure students were safe, he said. The university’s Thanksgiving break was scheduled to begin Wednesday, so there would not have been classes that day.

“We take the feelings of safety of our students very, very seriously,” he said.

Even with more debate and protests about racial issues sparking on college campuses across the nation, such as the University of Missouri and Yale University, heated debate is not common on this sleepy, peaceful campus in the woods of northwestern Washington.

“With disturbing social media content continuing through early this morning, students of color have advised me of their very genuine, entirely understandable, and heightened fear of being on campus,” Shepard said in his letter.

At Missouri, posts were made on social media threatening to shoot black people after protests about racial issues on that campus. The posts followed the resignations of the University of Missouri system president and the chancellor. A white college student at another school was later arrested for making a terrorist threat.

Shepard said debate about the Western Washington’s mascot has come up on occasion and he welcomed the discussion.

Some students do not believe a white European man is a good representation of their school, but Shepard, who is retiring at the end of this academic year, said he doesn’t plan to change the mascot.

Patrick Eckroth, a WWU senior from Port Orchard, Washington, said there is a problem with racism at the school.

“The idea of having a critical conversation about our mascot and the reaction to that is a great illustration of the problem we have not just in our university, but in society,” said Eckroth, who is a member of the student government but said he was speaking personally, not as a student leader.

Dozens of students, who said they represented Christian groups affiliated with the school, gathered on campus just before noon Tuesday to pray against fear and hate.

Shepard said that a large percentage of his students have not thought enough about race, society and social justice.

“I hope this is the beginning of something…a teachable moment.” he said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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