Responding to online threat, Philly-area universities amplify security

 Homeland Security agents patrol Temple University campus in response to a threat posted online. (Bobby Allyn/WHYY)

Homeland Security agents patrol Temple University campus in response to a threat posted online. (Bobby Allyn/WHYY)

College campuses in the Philadelphia area were under heightened security after federal authorities warned of possible violence following an online threat.

The threat appeared on 4Chan, a forum full of anonymous posts primarily by hackers and online pranksters. The site has, however, been connected to recent tragedies. A post hinted of a gun attack in the Northwest U.S. shortly before 10 people were fatally shot at a college in Roseburg, Ore. last week.

So, when an anonymous post said someone would “take up arms against a university near Philadelphia,” federal authorities notified colleges and universities in the region that the threats were being monitored. Armed federal agents fanned out across the city Monday to bolster security at several campuses.

The post, which pictured a masked cartoon frog holding a pistol, described how at 2 p.m., a violent plot would unfold at an unspecified campus. It encouraged those in the area to stay at home.

But federal authorities didn’t ask anyone to remain indoors. Hours after the threat, there were still no reports of violence, or arrests linked to the post, at any campus in or around Philadelphia. 

Still, anxiety was high at many schools.

At Temple, federal agents in bulletproof vests accompanied campus police around the school’s perimeter. City police officers also were positioned around the campus. Chatter about the increased security and online threat could be heard everywhere as students walked to and from class, in nearby cafes and around the student quad.

“It’s pretty scary,” said Temple student Nicole McCollum. “But I think it’s more of just a threat, and not something that serious. The school’s doing a pretty good job at warning us about it. I’ve seen a lot of campus security today, so I’m really not that worried about it. I’m still going to class.”

Although she said the threat was likely created by an Internet troll, McCollum thought authorities really have no choice but to respond with protection.

“They have to be there, just in case something happens. It’s really sad, actually. Unfortunately, we have to take it seriously, because, if we don’t, something last week could happen again,” she said.

Professors said some fearful students didn’t show up to class. Others, including Temple student Evan Delara, said hiding in a dorm would be an overreaction since a feeling of high alert still persists.

“I might not go through areas where there might be a lot of students. That’s not me being crazy about this, I’m just trying to be a little cautious,” he said.

With last week’s Oregon shooting so fresh in his mind, he does feel a little paranoid.

“At the same time,” Delara said, “it’s still Monday, I still have classes I have to go to, I have a big review for a test today, so it’s not going to hold me back from going to classes.”

University of Delaware threatThe University of Delaware, 45 miles southwest of Center City, Philadelphia, alerted students to the threat Sunday night and ramped up itspolice presence on Monday. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

University of Delaware students also uneasy

The unease extended beyond Philadelphia and its immediate suburbs. The University of Delaware, whose main campus is 45 miles southwest of Center City, alerted students to the threat Sunday night and ramped up its police presence on Monday.

Julie Solomon, a senior there, felt the main college green looked emptier than usual when she exited class around 2:10 pm. Solomon said many of her friends stayed home due to the threat, adding she would’ve done the same if not for an in-class exam. Her friend, fellow senior Hannah Tate, described an “atmosphere of fear” on campus. She and about 10 other friends kept a group text active all day in order to spread news and reassure one another.

That group text included an ominous screen shot of a post from 4Chan, where the original threat was posted. The post shown in the screen shot read simply, “UD main green, 10 o’clock. Hundreds of people crowded along paths.”

Both Tate and Solomon said they’d had classes canceled due to either poor attendance or student fears. As they idled near the college green, a policeman walked past with German shepherd in tow.

“I’ve seen a cop and a dog walk down the green before,” Solomon quipped, adding that she brought a bottle of pepper spray to campus for the first time in her four years at school.

Other students shrugged off the threat, noting that it was vague and that the University of Delaware is well south of Philadelphia.

“I don’t think it’s legitimate,” said Bryant Krussman, a freshman. “We’re pretty far out from Philadelphia.”

Ben Whiteside, a senior who commutes from nearby Bear, Delaware, said he briefly considered skipping class, but ultimately decided to drive in. The college green, he said, lacked its usual energy, although that might have been due to the autumn chill

“I saw four cops on the way to class instead of zero,” said Whiteside with a grin. “That’s the difference.”

An FBI spokesman wouldn’t answer questions about the threat, except to say that the bureau is acting out of an abundance of caution.

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