As the country faces a rise in anti-semitic and islamophobic In the wake of these incidents, federal agencies and university administrators are struggling to walk the fine line between providing security on college campuses and protecting free speech.
In many cases, schools have been reluctant to intervene to stop speech that might be perceived as threatening to one group but an expression of free speech to another.
Even within the Biden administration, representatives from the White House and the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Education have had lengthy discussions about how to strike the right balance, two administration officials told NBC News. The Department for Education recently issued guidance to schools, reminding them of their legal obligation to address discrimination. On Thursday, the department opened investigations at four elite universities over incidents of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
On the main campus of the University of Connecticut in rural Storrs, students from the Muslim Student Association, Students for Justice in Palestine and the Hillel The center for Jewish students said they had received calls from parents concerned for their safety.
At Hillel, posters of kidnapped Israelis He mysteriously disappeared during the night. Then, Jewish students say, they saw posters on campus calling for the freedom of Palestine by any means necessary. And his post on Instagram announcing a talk by a survivor of the Massacre at Re’im music festival received angry and anti-Semitic comments.
“I think that everything that has to do with violence, personally, affects me a lot. It’s very scary because I feel like words can turn into actions very quickly, like we’ve seen on other college campuses,” said Yana Tartakovskiy, a UConn junior who says she now hides her Star of David necklace so she doesn’t identify her as Jewish. on campus.
Muslim students also fear being identified. Muslim Students Association president Muneeb Syed said many women who wear hijab now wear hoodies if they walk around campus alone. Recently, he said, a Muslim woman was leaving a pro-Palestinian rally on campus when she was harassed by a car full of men who stopped to yell at her.
A friend of hers who wears a hijab on campus, but didn’t feel comfortable sharing her identity, told NBC News: “My parents are definitely worried. They call me and say, ‘Are you sure you’re safe?’ You know, they want to make sure I go to my dorm at a certain time, just so I don’t go out and take risks or potential risks outside.”
For Lena Maarouf, a recent graduate, the threat came seemingly out of nowhere. One morning she received a voicemail from a number in Oklahoma. She believes it’s because her number is still listed on the website of UConn’s Students for Justice in Palestine organization.
In the message, which was reproduced for NBC News, a man with a southern accent said: “Yes, I belong to the students for the death of all of Hamas. You are supporting baby killers, people who rape grandmothers. You’re just another black sand terrorist, that’s all you are. “Then you guys get together so the Mossad can take pictures of you because I can’t wait to see you dead.”
Maarouf said she was overcome with a deep sense of fear after hearing it.
“It makes you wonder, what else are they capable of doing if they go out of their way to get your number? And what kind of connections might they have with someone on campus? Maarouf said.
While both Muslim and Jewish students agreed that they do not feel safe, they were divided on whether there should be a greater security footprint on campus.
At Hillel, Jewish students are recruiting, hiring, and training students who can provide additional security to the building. They have received funding from the government and are working with the local police and fire station to train student security guards on best practices.
DHS offers universities and K-12 schools free security assessments through the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).
CISA Executive Director Brandon Wales told NBC News that the agency’s physical security advisors can help schools in a variety of ways, depending on their needs.
“It could be where there is an entrance and exit to a facility. Is it well structured to not allow adversaries to enter a facility but also allow students to escape when necessary? Wales said. “It may be looking at physical security lighting in critical areas that may be important and would allow a perpetrator to hide and attack students.”
But Maarouf and other members of Students for Justice in Palestine said they would not trust DHS to protect them, given the history of Muslim Americans feeling profiling and attacked by DHS.
“You have to look at their record: How have they treated Muslims in the past? Are they really going to believe us? Will they listen to our true concerns? Maarouf said.
UConn administrators say they are investigating the voicemail Maarouf received, as well as a threatening email Muslim students received at another UConn campus. “The University of Connecticut unequivocally condemns Islamophobia, just as it condemns anti-Semitism and all forms of hate.”
But Jewish and Muslim students who spoke to NBC News said they wanted the school to do more to acknowledge incidents across campus and engage students in informed discussion about the incidents. conflict and history in the Middle East.
“We really want the university to first and foremost recognize that these events are happening first and foremost in the broader UConn community,” Syed said. “It won’t be until that happens that we think the university and the students will take responsibility for their actions and really start to work on creating a culture that promotes diversity and inclusion.”