Education

Iowa State investigates violent racial online threat

Students demand forums on tensions; regents would 'consider going'

Iowa State Univetrsity President Wendy Wintersteen speaks May 7, 2018, to The Gazette’s Editorial Board in Cedar Rapids. (The Gazette)
Iowa State Univetrsity President Wendy Wintersteen speaks May 7, 2018, to The Gazette’s Editorial Board in Cedar Rapids. (The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — The same day students from Iowa’s public universities stood before the Board of Regents with raised fists and homemade signs demanding meetings on rising tuition and racial tensions on campus, Iowa State University announced it’s investigating a racial threat of violence.

“Early this morning, before 1 a.m., Iowa State University police were alerted to a threat of physical violence made toward three of our students,” according to a statement, issued Wednesday, from ISU President Wendy Wintersteen and ISU police Chief Michael Newton.

Authorities discovered the threat, according to the statement, on the social media forum Reddit. It follows weeks of race-related incidents across campus that sparked protests, meetings, student demands and administrative action.

“My leadership team and I condemn racism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia,” Wintersteen wrote in a Nov. 8 message outlining actions her administration plans. “Bigoted messages and conduct are abhorrent and inconsistent with our personal values, ISU’s Principles of Community, and the values we expect on our campus.”

But it was the meeting between ISU administrators and a Students Against Racism group a day earlier, which prompted those comments from Wintersteen, that incited the subsequent threats on Reddit, according to the message Wednesday.

The threat targeted students pictured in a photograph who participated during the meeting in a “land acknowledgment statement” to recognize indigenous people as stewards of the land. The post against them read, “We fought for this land and won, and will be more than willing to kill for it again if you try and take it.”

It sparked responses on Reddit ranging from “This is genuinely a scary post” to “So we are allowing extremely violent racist posts on this sub now?”

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Wintersteen and Newton’s statement Wednesday noted that investigators had connected with two of the students pictured and were working to find a third.

ISU police are investigating the threat by, among other things, contacting Reddit to see if it can identify the person who posted the message “so that they can be held responsible to the fullest extent of the law.”

Race relations and issues of diversity have become fraught topics across all three of Iowa’s public university campuses — including at the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa, where student and faculty leadership recently condemned the administration’s mishandling of concerns stemming from a rap concert on campus in the spring.

Dozens of students from all three campuses assembled Wednesday at the Board of Regents’ meeting on the UNI campus to air complaints and demand action.

“We asked this Board of Regents to take us seriously, and last year you refused to,” UNI student Giselle Herrera said during a public comment period. “We are not asking any more. We’re demanding.”

The students, Herrera said, had gone to town hall meetings on each campus to air concerns.

“Last year we warned you that tuition hikes would only make our campus less safe for students of color. We wish we had been wrong. But we were right,” she said. “We are requesting that this Board of Regents coordinate with Iowa Student Action in organizing public town halls at UNI, U Iowa, and ISU to have open and public discussions about tuition hikes and the dangerous rise of racism on our campuses with impacted students.”

Before the crowd carrying signs with message like “Bored of the regents” and “Do Better” left the meeting, UNI senior Sashay Carroll, 23, posed a question.

“Will you meet with us? Will you hold town halls at each state institution?” Carroll asked the regents, none of whom replied.

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Board President Mike Richards told The Gazette on Thursday that although the regents don’t have a policy against responding to remarks made during that comment period, they view it as “a time for the public to talk to us.”

He said the board doesn’t call public forums, but “the universities do. Or the student government does.”

“If we were invited, we would consider going to those meetings,” Richards said.

Asked about tensions on Iowa’s public campus, he pointed to policies the board and universities have enacted promoting inclusiveness.

“But yes, we are concerned when we hear these things, and we’d like to work to try to help everybody have a better experience,” he said. “Because we really are focused on the students, and that’s all the students.”

In Wintersteen’s comments Thursday to the board, she flagged actions her team is taking to address concerns.

They include additional training for administrators, faculty, campus police and students.

Starting in the spring, all students who live in university housing will have to take annual online diversity, equity and inclusion training.

“Racial intelligence training” will be held for all ISU public safety supervisors in December and all campus officers in the spring.

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