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April 19, 2012

Bomb threats:

Campus adapts to ongoing threats

Faculty, staff and students continue to adapt to the almost daily disruption of bomb threats that have been made against various campus buildings in recent weeks.

More than 100 threats have been made since mid-February, some scrawled in University restrooms and stairways, others communicated electronically.

Faculty members have relocated their classes or moved them online.

Events are being canceled, postponed or moved to off-campus locations. Visitors are being advised to bring photo IDs to campus to deal with heightened security. Non-students have been banned from Pitt dorms. Staff and administrators have mobilized to assist when nighttime threats to residence halls have rousted students from their beds.

The threats have continued despite assertions by the FBI that significant progress has been made in the investigation.

Police arrested a former Pitt communication graduate student who had referenced the bomb threats and the recent shooting at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in emails to several Pitt faculty. Mark Lee Krangle of New York was arrested April 11 by Allegheny County Police at the Pittsburgh International Airport and charged with terroristic threats and harassment by communication. He has not been charged in the bomb threats.

Earlier this week, leaders of New York-based cooperative Internet hosting service, MayFirst/PeopleLink, turned over information regarding IP addresses linked to several emailed threats that were remailed anonymously through servers on their system.

And former Pitt-Johnstown student Seamus Johnston and his partner Katherine Anne McCloskey were called before a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh on April 17 after being questioned by the FBI last week in relation to the bomb threats. (See related story, this issue.)

Completing the term

Faculty have been instructed to be flexible in finding ways for students — including those who have chosen to leave campus amid the threats — to complete their coursework and to make contingency plans including alternate locations in case evacuations interrupt final exams.

As for the April 29 commencement and related activities, “It’s too early to speak to that,” said Robert Hill, vice chancellor for Public Affairs, adding that an update may be forthcoming early next week.

Cynthia Golden, director of the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education, said her staff has seen an increase in faculty requests for help with final exams and other activities related to the end of the term.

Faculty want help recording lectures and moving paper-based tests to CourseWeb so students can access them online. “Because every course automatically has a CourseWeb ‘shell’ created now, it is easier for us to help faculty quickly get started,” she said.

Faculty also are learning to use the WebEx online conferencing tool, so they can conduct classes live online.

She said the CIDDE testing center is helping faculty arrange proctored exams for students who are going home.

Golden said faculty also are seeking alternatives to traditional in-class tests at the end of a semester, especially crafting assessments that encourage student reflection and synthesis of what they have learned, to reduce the possibility of cheating in online assessments.

CIDDE’s classroom services group, which provides classroom technology, will be open during this Saturday’s makeup day for classes that needed to be rescheduled due to evacuations.

“When this is all over, we may see an increased use of the learning management system (CourseWeb) across the University. Faculty who had not previously made use of the technology may decide they’d like to start using it, even if just for basic things like assignments, syllabi, simple quizzes and so on,” Golden said.

Increased security

Building evacuations continue, but the disruptions have become briefer.

Last week, the University began limiting access to buildings once they had been swept and cleared. Some buildings — including those that have been targeted by previous threats — have been limited to single entrances with guards checking for Pitt ID cards at the door.

The new security policy has created some long lines as people wait to enter, but the police say ID and bag checks enable them to clear buildings more quickly when threats occur.

Public Affairs’ Hill said visitors must show an official form of identification and be signed in and escorted by their host. Those attending events should be prepared to show identification as well as their invitation, he said.

Safety concerns

University Honors College Dean Edward M. Stricker, who teaches in the Department of Neuroscience, said it appears that most of his students remain in class. He noted that it has been difficult to know for sure whether students are leaving the University on account of the threats. Some left campus for the recent Easter and Passover holidays; others have chosen to go home on weekends to avoid the potential disruptions of residence hall evacuations. “Some are nervous about going to class,” but they represent a small percentage, he said. In his experience, students are treating the threats as a nuisance rather than cause for fear.

“We have a lot of sensible kids,” Stricker said, commending them for their sound thinking.

“They’re concerned about exam week, graduation — practical questions rather than abstract ones,” he said, adding that they are not succumbing to “wacky theories” that are interspersed with solid information about recent events. “They are sensible young adults, screening out the crap,” he said.

Graduate School of Public and International Affairs Dean John T.S. Keeler said most GSPIA students live off campus and therefore are not as directly affected by the nighttime residence hall evacuations as are undergraduates.

However, GSPIA has a high percentage of foreign students, many of them from China. News of the bomb threats, coupled with the recent killing of two Chinese graduate students in an April 11 carjacking attempt near the University of Southern California campus, has been too much for some worried parents half a world away. Some have demanded their children return home immediately; a few are insisting their children transfer, Keeler said.


Kathy Humphrey, vice provost and dean of students, has been sending periodic updates to students and parents to keep them informed.

She expressed gratitude for the assistance of Public Affairs and Computing Services and Systems Development staff in setting up phone banks and helping distribute information to parents and students. “We have done our best to answer the many questions and concerns parents and students have had by being as available as possible to answer phones and help in any way we can,” she said.

Hill said some parents are calling with concerns, “But not as many as you might think,” declining to offer specific numbers. “They are reassured that we are doing the best we can. They appreciate our willingness to communicate with them,” he said.

“It’s fortunate that we are managing a nuisance rather than a tragedy,” Hill said. While no bombs have been found, “We have to put safety first,” he said, adding that the University community has complied with evacuation orders. “Cooperation couldn’t be better,” he said.

“It’s important to appreciate that we are still operating a great University of Pittsburgh,” Hill said. “The business of the University goes on.

“This is a big challenge, but learning is continuing, research is continuing and so is partnering with the community for a better Pittsburgh.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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