Fear Follows Student Death Threats

Penn State University student LaKeisha Wolf has a professional bodyguard, sometimes two, at her side most days. The 21-year-old broadcast journalism major rarely steps out alone.

Wolf, president of the university's Black Caucus, has received four death threats in the last two years, including two in October. So six months ago, Penn State offered her protection.

``Because they're anonymous and because they're so vile in content, I think any reasonable person would be scared,'' university President Graham B. Spanier said. ``That fear, that legitimate fear, is something that should concern all of us.''

But Wolf isn't the only black student who's been threatened, and some students complain Penn State isn't doing enough to address the problem. Their anger has touched off a firestorm on this rural central Pennsylvania campus, where some say there's an undercurrent of racism.

For more than a week, scores of students have camped out in the student union building. Prayer meetings are held every hour, and some students say they are fasting until the university meets their demands.

``Black people are scared, and the university isn't doing anything about it,'' said Assata Richards, a spokeswoman for the Black Caucus.

Aside from Wolf, several blacks, including a university trustee and at least one football player, received threatening letters in October. In April, an anonymous letter sent to a reporter at the campus newspaper, The Daily Collegian, included a threat to bomb a ceremony honoring black graduates. Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are investigating.

Frustrated with what they saw as university inaction, about two dozen students rushed the Beaver Stadium field before Penn State's spring football scrimmage April 21.

Three days later, the Black Caucus effectively shut down a university-sponsored march against racism. More than 4,000 students showed up, but the march didn't start after the Black Caucus demanded a meeting with Spanier. The protesters then moved to the student union building.

``I'm going to stay as long as I have to,'' Karissa Burns said while studying for a Spanish exam Wednesday. ``I have a test at nine, but then I'm coming back. If my life is in danger, then this is what I'm going to do. It's that important to me.''

Penn State last week announced it would add faculty to the African and African-American Studies Department, create an Africana Studies Research Center, create a new scholarship program and give more authority to the vice provost for educational equity.

Black Caucus leaders say the changes don't go far enough. Spokesman Chenits Pettigrew said the research center needs more funding and the vice provost should be able to withhold money from colleges that don't meet diversity goals.

Ironically, Penn State has a strong record on race, including having integrated the Cotton Bowl Classic. The 1947 football team agreed to play only after bowl officials said they would allow Penn State's black players to participate.

But Penn State has also seen past incidents involving racist or anti-Semitic posters and fliers, and Wolf and her organization say they are constantly singled out on this predominantly white campus.

Less than 4 percent of the 40,571 students at Penn State's main campus are black and the borough of State College is 84 percent white. In comparison, blacks make up more than 8 percent of students at the University of Pittsburgh and more than 20 percent at Temple University, the two other state-supported research institutions.

``People wouldn't send those letters unless they felt safe,'' Wolf said.

Perhaps most unsettling to students was that Wolf's last letter April 20 promised a black man's body would be found. On Friday, a black man was shot dead about 20 miles from town, but police say there is no connection. A different location was mentioned in the letter.

Still, the slaying shocked some students, who now walk to class in groups. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has asked the university to offer protection.

``The police are not being forthcoming,'' Richards said. ``People are afraid to leave 'The Village' because a body was found.''

Spanier stresses that he's dedicated to long-term solutions. Since his appointment in 1995, black enrollment is up 27 percent, compared with a 6 percent increase in overall enrollment.

``This is not a short-term agenda for me or for Penn State,'' Spanier said. ``We will do the right thing.''

Wolf said the struggle will be worthwhile if it changes attitudes.

``The fact that my life is in danger, that it still is as we speak right now, it is a blessing,'' she said. ``I would give my life if people would recognize the truth that racism is real and stop looking past this.''