Bathroom Wall Threat Shuts Midwest Schools

Instructor Manuel Castulo, makes calls outside Malcolm X College on Chicago's West side Monday, April 14, 2008. The college canceled classes and evacuated the campus during the day after finding a written threat in the men's washroom.
AP Photo/Stacie Freudenberg
Two colleges returned to normal class schedules after a promised doomsday scrawled in graffiti came and went without incident, but at least one university remained closed as administrators weighed the seriousness of the threats.

Administrators told students and nonessential personnel to remain off campus Tuesday at St. Xavier University in Chicago. A message in a bathroom reading "Be prepared to die on 4/14" resulted in empty campuses Monday not only at the college, but at four nearby elementary and high schools.

Unlike St. Xavier, administrators at Chicago's Malcolm X College and Michigan's Oakland University decided to resume classes on Tuesday.

Malcolm X evacuated students and canceled daytime classes Monday after a similar threat was found in a campus bathroom. And administrators closed Oakland University because of threatening graffiti mentioning April 14.

"We feel it is safe to return to normal operations Tuesday," Oakland University Chief of Police Sam Lucido said in a statement.

The closures - just two days before the anniversary of the Virginia Tech killings and exactly two months after the deadly rampage at Northern Illinois University - illustrate a major challenge facing school administrators, who have to decide just how seriously to take such threats.

Security events have become commonplace in the educational sphere, said Oakland University spokesman Ted Montgomery.

"It's just part of the deal these days," he said.

St. Xavier University and Malcolm X College are located about 15 miles apart, and despite what was described as "basically" the same wording in the threats, there was no indication the incidents were related, according to Chicago police spokeswoman Monique Bond.

The graffiti at St. Xavier - the second of two threats found since April 5 - was widely publicized over the weekend, and also contained in updates the college placed on its Web site.

While St. Xavier decided Friday to close its campuses until further notice, classes at Malcolm X resumed late Monday afternoon. Bond said bomb-sniffing dogs from the Chicago Police Department were taken through Malcolm X, but campus police made the final decision about when to open campus.

Oakland University, an 18,000-student state university located about 20 miles north of Detroit, planned to resume classes Tuesday.

The graffiti that prompted its shutdown also made a reference to "4/14" but didn't threaten a specific type or time of an attack, Montgomery said.

School administrators' decisions about handling threats can be made easier by having a plan in place should a crisis arise, said Larry Consalvos, senior vice president at iXP Corp., a security consulting firm which works with universities on campus safety.

Knowing how they'll deal with the chain of command, first responders, communication and alarm systems is vital, Consalvos said, and allows administrators to decide "is it prudent to move forward and have classes in session, or might it be better to shut down for a few days?"

"I don't think you can be cavalier about the seriousness of any threat," Consalvos said.

In Chicago, two elementary schools and two high schools near St. Xavier canceled classes Monday after a Saturday morning meeting between school officials and the Chicago Police Department.

The fact that the threat mentioned a certain date helped administrators at Evergreen Park Southwest Elementary decide to shut down, said district superintendent Craig Fiegel. Other schools in the district - located in the village of Evergreen Park, next to Chicago - canceled outdoor recess and PE classes Monday.

Still, Fiegel called such violent graffiti "the new bomb threat," remembering a time in the 1960s when bomb threats were regularly used to close down institutions.

And he worries the closures could encourage other people who get a kick out of causing chaos.

"At what point is it serious and at what point do you have to go on with it?" Fiegel said.

At Malcolm X College on Monday afternoon, Edelena Lee was one of a number of students arriving for class who had not heard of the threat, or that the school had been locked down.

Despite disappointment that she may have wasted a trip to campus, she had no problem with the decision to close the school.

"I think people have issues nowadays," said Lee, 30. "You can never be too cautious."