As the country grapples with a surge in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents, federal agencies and university administrators are struggling to walk a 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 could be perceived as threatening to one group but an expression of free speech to another.
Even inside the Biden administration, representatives from the White House and the Homeland Security, Justice and Education departments have had lengthy debates about how to strike the right balance, two administration officials tell NBC News. The Department of Education recently issued guidance to schools, reminding them of their legal obligation to address discrimination. On Thursday, the department opened investigations into four elite universities for incidences of antisemitism and Islamophobia.
At 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 center for Jewish students all said they have received calls from parents who are worried about their safety.
At Hillel, posters of kidnapped Israelis mysteriously disappeared overnight. Then, the Jewish students say, they saw posters on campus calling for the freedom of Palestine by any means necessary. And their Instagram post advertising a talk by a survivor of the Re’im music festival massacre received angry and antisemitic comments.
“I think that anything that has to do with violence, for me personally, affects me a lot. It’s very scary because I feel like words can become actions very quickly, as we’ve seen on other college campuses,” said Yana Tartakovskiy, a junior at UConn who says she now hides her Star of David necklace so she is not identified as Jewish on campus.
Muslim students are also worried about being identified. Muslim Student Association President Muneeb Syed said many women wearing hijabs now wear hoodies if they are walking by themselves across campus. Recently, he said, a Muslim woman was leaving a pro-Palestinian rally on campus when she was harassed by a car of men who pulled over to yell at her.
A female friend of his who wears a hijab on campus, but who was not comfortable sharing her identity, told NBC News, “My parents are definitely worried. They call me, they’re like, ‘Are you sure you’re safe?’ You know, they want to make sure that I go to my dorm at a certain time, just so that I don’t go out and have any risks or potential risks outside.”
For recent graduate Lena Maarouf, the threat came seemingly out of nowhere. She received a voicemail from an Oklahoma number one morning. She believes it is because her number is still listed on the website for UConn’s Students for Justice in Palestine organization.
In the message, which was played for NBC News, a man with a Southern accent said, “Yeah, I belong to the students for the death of all Hamas. You’re supporting baby killers, people who rape grandmas. You’re just another sand n***** terrorist, that’s all you are. So you guys get together so the Mossad can get pictures of you because I can’t wait to see you dead.”
Maarouf said she was filled with a deep sense of dread after she heard it.
“It makes you wonder, like, what else are they capable of doing if they’re going out of their way to get your number? And what kind of connections can they have to maybe someone on campus?” Maarouf said.
While both Muslim and Jewish students agreed they don’t feel safe, they were divided on whether there should be a larger security footprint on campus.
At Hillel, Jewish students are recruiting, hiring and training students who can provide extra security for the building. They’ve received government funding and are working with the local police and fire station to train student security guards on best practices.
DHS offers universities as well as K-12 schools free security assessments through the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).
The executive director of CISA, Brandon Wales, told NBC News the agency’s physical security advisers can help schools in a variety of ways depending on their needs.
“It could be where you have an ingress and egress into a facility. Is it structured right to not allow adversaries into a facility but also to allow students to escape when necessary?” Wales said. “It can be looking at physical security lighting in critical areas that may be important that would allow a perpetrator to hide and attack students.”
But Maarouf and other members of Students for Justice in Palestine said they wouldn’t trust DHS to protect them, given the history of Muslim Americans feeling profiled and targeted by DHS.
“You have to look at their track record: How have they treated Muslims in the past? Are they really going to believe us? Are they going to listen to our true concerns?” Maarouf said.
Administrators at UConn say they are investigating the voicemail Maarouf received, as well as a threatening email Muslim students received on another UConn campus. “UConn unequivocally condemns Islamophobia, just as it condemns antisemitism and all forms of hatred.”
But Jewish and Muslim students who spoke to NBC News said they wanted the school to do more to acknowledge the incidents across campus and to engage students in an informed discussion of the conflict and history in the Middle East.
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