NORTHFIELD, MINN. – A racist threat against a St. Olaf student that touched off campuswide protests and forced the college to cancel classes earlier this month was a hoax, the school revealed Wednesday.
A student confessed to writing the note, St. Olaf President David R. Anderson wrote in a message to students. The threat — an anonymous, typewritten note — was “fabricated,” he said, as an apparent “strategy to draw attention to concerns about the campus climate.”
“This was not a genuine threat,” Anderson wrote in the first of two messages Wednesday to students. “We’re confident that there is no ongoing threat from this incident to individuals or the community as a whole.”
The note, tucked onto the windshield of a black student’s car on April 29, sparked outrage, fear and hurt on this close-knit private college campus, tucked into the hills of this river town about 45 miles south of the Twin Cities. The revelation that the note was fake was a shock of a different sort.
“I think it’s disturbing that it was written deliberately, just to stir up the campus,” sophomore Ben Parsell said Wednesday.
But would the hoax make it harder for the victim of a genuine racist threat to get help next time? Parsell didn’t think so.
“I don’t think the campus would let that happen,” he said.
For some students, a fake threat doesn’t change the reality of racism, or the positive changes they’ve seen on campus since the protests — including a task force the university pledged to set up to address minority student concerns.
“It’s started something good,” said Daniel Katuka. The St. Olaf senior, who is black, said he hasn’t encountered the sort of racism on campus that he’s experienced in the outside world. But he appreciated the St. Olaf community coming together “in a positive way” in the face of an apparent threat.
“It shows that if there’s a problem, it’s not a big problem,” he said. “It shows that this is a campus that stands together.”
‘Started something good’
Finals begin next week and students were out on the campus grounds Wednesday enjoying the spring sunshine. Student groups set up study break stations on the lawn, blasting music and handing out cotton candy.
Sophomore Alexandra Mascolo was swinging in a hammock next to the campus chapel. She’d participated in the protests earlier this month and believed that the most recent incident “started something good” at the college, although she noted, a hate crime hoax, “was not necessarily the best way to get it started.”
Student organizers who this month called for sweeping changes on campus to address a string of reported incidents involving racist messages targeting black students, said Wednesday that they don’t know the identity of the hoaxer. But they say their protest went beyond any single incident.
“Our movement wasn’t about one individual,” said Precious Ismail, a spokeswoman for the campus group, the Coalition for Change on the Hill. “Our movement was about a pattern of institutional racism.”
On April 29, St. Olaf senior Samantha Wells, who is black, posted images on social media of a threatening note she said she had found on her windshield. Wells was a featured speaker at campus rallies this month, tearfully relaying the discovery of the note and how unsafe it made her feel on campus.
Anderson said Wednesday that a student was responsible for the fake threat, but “federal privacy laws prohibit the college from disclosing the identity of the author of that note and disclosing the actions taken by the college now that we know the author’s identity.”
Wells, on social media early Wednesday afternoon, addressed the president’s disclosure. But it was unclear from what she wrote whether she acknowledges or denies being the note’s author.
“So, it looks like something made its way back to me in the investigation,” she wrote. “I will be saying it was a hoax. I don’t care. There is nothing more that I can do.”
Wells could not be reached Wednesday for an explanation.
Anderson, meanwhile, said the college continues to investigate similar reported incidents that have occurred on campus since last fall. The April 29 incident was the latest, prompting a campus rally that night and the canceling of classes two days later as Anderson received demands from students wanting administrators to address the incidents and institutional racism.
Wells said that the anonymous typewritten note left on her windshield said in total: “I am so glad you are leaving soon. One less [N-word] this school has to deal with. You have spoken up too much. You will change nothing. Shut up or I will shut you up.”
Northfield police told the Star Tribune Wednesday that they have closed their investigation into the note, explaining that Wells was unwilling to seek the filing of a criminal case.
Wells said in an e-mail late last week to the lead investigator that “I have decided that I am not going to be filing a report.”
She said she would be graduating soon, leaving for Europe in June and “would rather not spend the end of my college career and my last month and a half in the U.S. worrying about an investigation.”
With Wells bowing out, police have closed the case. The case file points out that police did not see the anonymous typewritten note because Wells “took [it] outside and had a ‘ceremonial’ burning to destroy it.”
Wells said she destroyed the note “because she didn’t want to look at it or have it anywhere near her,” according to the file.
Northfield Police Chief Monte Nelson said Wednesday that his department had received no information questioning the note’s authenticity. He added that he was not aware of any law that would enable him to charge someone with such a hoax.
Despite closing the investigation into the April 29 incident, police are continuing to investigate another report of a racial incident case at St. Olaf, Nelson said.
“I expect that will stay open for quite a while,” the chief said. “We’ve got to work with the school” as it pursues its own investigation.
Jennifer Brooks • 612-673-4008
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482