MSU students raise safety, other concerns after threats
Montana State University administration said it is supporting students, responsive
By Keila Szpaller DAILY MONTANAN
One Montana State University student recently told the Board of Regents about sleeping on a friend’s couch for a month out of fear of being on campus over threatening emails sent to the Queer Straight Alliance.
One student who is LGBTQ+ lost weight because of fear of going to the dining hall, according to a student leader.
At the Montana Board of Regents meeting this month, a couple of members of the Queer Straight Alliance said minority students have had to take precautions to feel safe on campus after the group received two emails with homophobic, transphobic and racist language, including a death threat.
They also said they have not been able to rely on the administration to communicate with the campus, which increases the danger for students. The Bozeman flagship is Montana’s largest university with 16,688 students.
The group received two emails, one on Feb. 16 with the threat, and one on Feb. 23, according to testimony from the Queer Straight Alliance and MSU.
MSU said an analysis by campus police, city police and the FBI showed the first message sent to the group in February “did not pose a credible threat of violence.” It said the other email contained “reprehensible language.”
MSU also said it has acted to support concerned students, such as offering emergency housing and secure entry to a commons.
“We decry communications that contain threats because, whether they represent real or perceived harm, their inimical language erodes the community spirit that we treasure at Montana State University,” said President Waded Cruzado in part of a message to the campus this week.
Wednesday, MSU said the threatening email remains an open investigation, but campus police have received no new reports of threats.
However, students and faculty said the administration has fallen short in keeping the campus informed about threats and its response to them.
In the meantime, a leader with the Diversity and Inclusion Student Commons said a student running for office received a threatening and racist message on a social media campaign post just this week.
“I don’t think this is a safe space for students,” said Marquayvion Hughes, an ambassador with the diversity commons. “It’s gotten pretty dire, and the fact our university hasn’t addressed it has only made the situation more dangerous.”
Hughes said he knows of four students, including the LGBTQ+ student who lost weight, who are skipping some classes since Spring break because they are afraid of the tenor of discussion in them.
Hughes is from Iowa, and he said he put in a transfer application to Iowa State University this week because of the climate at MSU.
STUDENTS AIR CONCERNS TO BOARD OF REGENTS
During public comment at the Board of Regents meeting earlier this month, two members of the Queer Straight Alliance discussed the two anonymous emails the group received.
The students said the messages referred to many marginalized students on campus, including those who are queer, people of color, and Muslim.
They said they feel shaken and unsafe as a result and believe the lack of communication from the administration makes them even more vulnerable.
“Without my involvement in QSA, I would not have learned about these threats made targeting my community,” said one student, who identified as queer. (The student’s name was not easily identifiable through the video feed, and the QSA did not respond to social media messages for comment in time for this story.)
The student called on the MSU administration to put out an official statement and to apologize for its lack of response. The Board of Regents met March 15 and 16.
“It is inappropriate and appalling the number of students, staff and faculty and instructors who have had to come to me or other members of the QSA leadership team saying we are the reason they were able to take safety precautions to feel safe on campus,” the student said.
On Sunday, the president sent an email to the campus. It said MSU has devoted care and attention to “difficult situations,” and although threats were not credible, the campus has “agreed to denounce violence and disruption” via the student code of conduct.
“My heart goes out to all individuals who have been impacted by these specific situations as well as to others who are undergoing challenging circumstances in their lives, maybe provoked by events of a similar nature,” Cruzado wrote.
At the Board of Regents meeting, another student, Tierney Hula, said the group is getting accustomed to receiving threats and accompanied a member to the police station just the night before to report one.
Hula, studying cell biology and neuroscience, read portions of the emails in testimony.
The messages told the students to turn to “the white God of Christianity” or suffer an “early death” at an off-campus event, and “true Montanans” would “expel all the groomers and colored people” from campus and the state.
Hula said the administration’s rationale for not addressing the messages earlier was they didn’t want to “inadvertently platform the message” of the sender, a “reasonable precaution.”
“But personally, I would think that the administrators of an academic institution would have the critical thinking skills to be able to figure out a way to address it in a way that supports students, addresses the risk and doesn’t platform the message of the sender,” Hula said to the Board of Regents.
The chairwoman of the Board of Regents thanked the students for their comments but did not offer an immediate response to their concerns at the meeting.
Wednesday, in a statement provided by the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, Chairwoman Brianne Rogers said the Board of Regents welcomes comments from students.
“As a matter of policy, the Board does not respond to public comment during the meeting,” Rogers said in the statement. “Through OCHE, the Board is continuing to monitor the situation and is receiving regular updates from the campus.”
The Commissioner’s Office did not provide the policy to which it referred by press time Thursday.
MSU investigates, defends response
MSU spokesperson Michael Becker said the administration responded promptly to reports of the emails. He said one contained “reprehensible language,” but law enforcement found the other “did not pose a credible threat of violence.”
“However, we activated all of our support mechanisms for these students that we have on campus,” Becker said.
He said the reason MSU did not issue a statement earlier was because the threat was unfounded and also because “the author of these emails has such an incredibly low bar for sowing fear — writing a single, anonymous email — ” that doing so “would only reward and encourage this horrible behavior.”
The emails came from an encrypted email service based in Switzerland, Proton Mail, which provides anonymity and is “for all practical measures, almost entirely beyond the reach of U.S. or other international law enforcement agencies,” according to MSU.
The first email referenced an off-campus event not affiliated with MSU, according to students and the administration. As soon as the university learned about it, it notified campus police, which notified city police, who met with organizers, who held the event “without incident,” MSU said.
Becker said MSU offered support to students through the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Diversity and Inclusion Student Commons. He said measures include counseling and risk-mitigation training through campus police, and the addition of a secure card swipe entrance to the diversity commons so only students have access.
“The university has extended every tangible avenue of support to these students that we possess and will continue to do so,” Becker said.
Faculty, student leaders voice support
Faculty Senate President Jennifer Thomson said Wednesday she believes the administration offered a “very robust response” to the threats.
She said the response was guided by law enforcement, including the decision to refrain from initially making a public statement to not amplify the message or hateful words in the email.
“I think the response that was taken was very appropriate,” Thomson said. “I just wish that there had been more openness about what that response was.
“As faculty, we felt like we were not notified of what was going on so that we could reach out to our students. And just like many faculty, I found out about what happened initially from my students.”
Next week, the Faculty Senate will vote on a resolution that condemns the threats students received, Thomson said. The resolution in part calls for increased communication on campus about “acts of hate speech.”
It extends support to the Queer Straight Alliance and to the Young Americans for Liberty. A nontraditional student recently threatened to shoot members of the Young Americans for Liberty at a campus information table; campus law enforcement issued a warning to the student.
“We are the first line of defense that deals with the students on a daily basis, and we want to show support and solidarity with the students that are feeling threatened,” Thomson said.
Lucas Oelkers, student body president, said the Associated Students of MSU adopted a similar resolution.
In response to the threat, he said members of the QSA made two requests of him — to get people’s private information off of public sites and to make the Diversity and Inclusion Student Commons available only by key swipe. He then made the requests to the president, and Oelkers said Cruzado’s office reacted swiftly.
“The response from the administration was prompt. I’ll tell you that. I’ve never seen such an emergency meeting in the morning after,” Oelkers said.
Oelkers said administrators and student leaders are doing their best to ensure all students feel welcomed and supported on campus. He has been at MSU for four years.
“This is not normal,” Oelkers said. “ … I love campus. I love being a Bobcat. I love the people that are here. I love the students. And there’s some sort of disconnect.
“What is the reason behind all of this? Is it the legislature? Is it personalized?”
The legislature has taken up bills that affect the LGBTQ+ community, such as one to prohibit minors from drag shows, and another that would punish doctors for providing gender-affirming care to youth.
Oelkers said he didn’t want to comment on whether he believes those bills are emboldening people to make threats against people who are LGBTQ+, but he said the bills do affect members of the community.
“And that in a sense is a stressor in people’s lives,” he said.
More than two emails
The problem goes beyond those two recent emails, however, Hughes said.
For example, last semester, he said someone posted stickers around campus that said “white youth in revolt,” and he’s seen antisemitic messages on at least one car on campus. When he first showed up on campus in 2019, he said he found Nazi propaganda posters in a dorm.
In one of his classes, Hughes, who is studying political science, said students discussed why slaves should have just killed themselves.
“Those are my ancestors,” he said.
Hughes, who is African American and a minority on the 83% white campus, said the faculty member in that class tried to cultivate a culture of open conversation with different perspectives, but that isn’t always the case on the campus.
Although law enforcement found the warning of violence in the recent email wasn’t valid, Hughes said administrators have been dismissive of students’ concerns. He said he believes the administration would rather students depart in May and return in the fall as though nothing happened rather than address underlying problems.
“We get to be this gorgeous, golden university again,” Hughes said.
In the meantime, he said students have more access to conspiracies than answers.
Hula, who testified to the Board of Regents, talked about losing faith in MSU after the anonymous emails: “I will not let these people take away my pride for being a transgender person, for being a queer person, for going to school in Montana, but I will admit that my pride is shaking.
“I am starting to become ashamed of calling myself a Bobcat.”
In her message to the campus on Sunday, Cruzado discussed the email threats against the Queer Straight Alliance and separate threat against students with Young Americans for Liberty.
Cruzado said she wanted to offer encouragement to students and ask for their help. She also said MSU was grateful for the diligence of law enforcement agencies, and she reminded students of resources, such as counseling services.
“Words have power; we can and should always use our words for good, but the choice is ultimately an individual one,” Cruzado wrote.
She also called on students to make good on MSU’s value of inclusion. The subject line of the email was “As it snows … ,” and she said nature affords a time for reflection with spring ahead.
“Spring is a time for renewal: I know our sense of belonging, empathy and care will be born anew every day as we cross the line of this semester and head for the long days of summer that await us,” Cruzado said.