Days of demonstrations against hate speech and canceled classes followed at St. Olaf College, a liberal arts school in Northfield, Minn.
There was only one problem: The note, as it turns out, was fake. And yet, it arrived on the heels of nine other reported acts of hate speech on campus in recent months.
In an email sent to the campus community Wednesday, St. Olaf College President David R. Anderson revealed that investigators “confronted a person of interest” and confirmed that the threatening note was “not a genuine threat.”
“We’re confident that there is no ongoing threat from this incident to individuals or the community as a whole,” the message said.
In a subsequent email, Anderson offered more clues about the author and the note, but did not offer a name.
“The reason I said in my earlier note that this was not a genuine threat is that we learned from the author’s confession that the note was fabricated,” he added. “It was apparently a strategy to draw attention to concerns about the campus climate.”
Anderson went on to say that federal privacy laws prohibit the college from disclosing the identity of the note’s author.
Samantha Wells, the student who allegedly found the note, appeared to reference the president’s email on Twitter Wednesday, according to the Minnesota Star Tribune. In several tweets, the paper reported, Wells referenced being linked to the university’s investigation, but did not explicitly claim responsibility for fabricating the note.
“So, it looks like something made its way back to me in the investigation,” she tweeted. “I will be saying it was a hoax. I don’t care. There is nothing more that I can do.”
Police told the Star Tribune that Wells declined to file a criminal case, leading authorities to drop their investigation. Police told the paper that Wells informed them she’d prefer not to be involved in an investigation as she neared graduation before leaving for Europe.
Attempts to reach Wells via email were not immediately successful.
The racist note set off a flurry of student action that eventually resulted in an agreement between school officials and student protesters after several days of protest. Anderson sent an email to students May 1 stating that the administration had agreed with the student-led group “Collective For Change on The Hill,” which interrupted a college forum earlier in the day to present administrators with their demands.
“This the first step in a process toward a long-term solution, and all of us on campus are committed to moving forward in a spirit of collaboration to address these important issues,” he said.
School administrators eventually canceled classes “so that we may have time for faculty, students, and staff to continue the discussions about racism and diversity on our campus,” St. Olaf spokeswoman Kari VanDerVeen said at the time.
The racist note was the latest incident in a series of similar expressions against students.
“It’s been something that’s been going on all year,” Wells told fellow students during the weekend demonstrations, according to the Northfield News. “We’ve done so much digging and this stuff has happened for decades. There’s one thing that happens and it stops and then it happens again and then it kind of stops. I think the big message is we shouldn’t let this happen again. The administration needs to do something that stops it indefinitely.”
“We are protesting to help change the institutional structure that perpetuates racism here at St. Olaf,” she told The Washington Post in an email May 1.
Nearly 3,000 full-time students were enrolled in St. Olaf College in fall 2016; 2,214 of the students were white and 63 were black, according to enrollment figures.
During the current school year, there have been nine reported acts of hate speech on campus — three incidents during the first semester and six during the second semester — according to the college.
School officials called it “deeply troubling” that some racist messages were being sent directly to specific students and said the administration is working to find those responsible for the “hate-filled acts.”
“The racist message a student received this weekend follows several other racist acts on campus throughout the year, including written racial epithets and a message targeted at another student,” VanDerVeen, the school spokeswoman, said in a statement several days after the protests began. “In addition to the sharp rise in incidents, it is also deeply troubling that the perpetrators have begun directing messages to specific members of our community.
“These acts are despicable. They violate every value we hold as a community, and they have absolutely no place at St. Olaf.”
In an April 21 email to students, Anderson, the college president, compared the recent incidents to a form of terrorism.
“I am as angry and frustrated as you are at the repeated violations of our values and community norms by someone who defaces the campus with scrawled racial epithets,” Anderson wrote. “I would love nothing more than to discover who is responsible for these acts and to remove that person from our community.”
The Northfield News reported that a student discovered a similar note on his car earlier in the month.
Then, the outlet reported, another student found a note in her backpack that read, “Go back to Africa.”