NELSONVILLE, Ohio – An attacker could find many places to hide at Hocking College, a campus carved into a forest in the Appalachian foothills. And with the threat of a mass killing looming over Black students at the community college, Allen Edwards is steering clear of the trees.
"I don't feel too safe walking by the woods," said Edwards, a 19-year-old Black student from Canton. "There's woods everywhere. And somebody could be out in them, and I don't know."
The FBI is investigating a threat scrawled last week on a bathroom wall warning that Black students would be killed Feb. 2. It bore the trademarks of just another casual — though chilling — threat of violence on a college campus, but students here aren't taking any chances.
At least two Black students have withdrawn permanently from school out of fear for their safety, and another dozen have moved out of the dorm where the threat was found, officials at the two-year technical college said. Some students seem unperturbed, but others say the threat has brought simmering racial tensions to the surface.
The school confirmed Tuesday that the threat said Black students would be killed Feb. 2. At least one subsequent note reading "kill the ni**er" was reported.
Hocking covers hundreds of densely treed acres in the Wayne National Forest about 60 miles southeast of Columbus. The campus overwhelms Nelsonville, an economically depressed rural town plagued with heroin addiction and unemployment. About 400 of the school's 6,300 students are Black, many of whom are foreign exchange students from the Caribbean.
The college has provided temporary housing for students who are too scared to stay in Hocking Heights, the dorm where the threats were found. And for those wary of venturing outside until after Feb. 2, teachers are making allowances for missed class work.
Since the first threat was discovered Friday, the school has installed more security cameras in dorms and beefed up foot patrols. A $5,000 reward is being offered, and extra counselors are on hand.
Campus spokeswoman Judy Sinnott said that she had not heard previous complaints of racist taunting, but that on a small campus, anything can happen.
"Any time that there are young people, you know, there's going to be tension," Sinnott said. "Young people will be young people."
Edwards lives on the second-floor hallway of Hocking Heights, a few doors down from the two Black students who abruptly quit. He's contemplating leaving, too, but hasn't decided.
Edwards said he has seen racist comments written on the same bathroom wall in the past but didn't let it bother him. But two days after the first threat was found, he saw the second on the bathroom wall and reported it to campus police.
"I'm not sure how to feel," he said. "I'm just going to see how everything plays out."
Another resident of the second floor, Amelinda Marengo, sat on her bed and said that even though the threat doesn't include her, she is still afraid.
Marengo, who is half Puerto Rican, said she and her Black roommate endured racist taunts in the cafeteria on several occasions last year. Her roommate declined to be interviewed.
"We'd be sitting at a lunch table and some guys would be sitting across the room, and they'd be screaming, like, 'ni**er lover' across the table," Marengo said. "I had enough of it one day and I got up and I just started yelling at them and telling them, like, 'There is no reason for you to treat someone like that.'"
About a year ago, Marengo said, a male friend led her into the second-floor men's bathroom and showed her racist comments on the wall, including a drawing of what she called a "hangman."
It wasn't clear whether the Feb. 2 date held any significance for the campus. FBI agent Mike Brooks in Cincinnati said he could not comment.
It's not the first time racial threats – usually found to be hollow – have interrupted life at a college. Officials at St. Xavier University in Chicago shut down the campus in 2008 when threatening messages were found scrawled in the bathroom of a freshman dorm, and in 2006 a Black woman pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after threatening letters to minorities at her former college led officials to move dozens of students for a night.
But the threat at Hocking, with its racially tense environment, is sending ripples through the area. Students and faculty members at Ohio University in nearby Athens are also on alert. Short of stationing police officers in the woods – which Hocking lacks the manpower to do – officials there say vigilance remains the best defense.
Students rushed to classes Tuesday as an icy wind blew snow flurries through the trees. Disturbing rumors floated, including a claim — later determined to be false — that nooses had been found in the woods. Some students, all of them white, admitted they had heard racist comments on campus before, but said those attitudes are confined to just a handful of people.
But many of them, like 19-year-old Jacob Taylor, didn't understand what all the fuss was about.
"It was just some person being ignorant," he said, and headed upstairs to his room in Hocking Heights.
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