Disciplinary routes unclear after bomb threats

Police began investigations at W&L and VMI after students posted anonymous threats online


Shauna Muckle

Police posted at Washington and Lee’s Natatorium after the bomb threat was reported Dec. 1.

Bri Hatch, Shauna Muckle, and Stef Chiguluri

An anonymous Washington and Lee student posted a bomb threat on YikYak on Thursday, Dec. 1. More than a week later, it’s still unclear what disciplinary consequences that student will face.

Washington and Lee’s campus community received a mass alert at 9:15 p.m. on Dec. 1 that warned of an active bomb threat in Elrod Commons. The community was told to avoid the Elrod Commons area until further notice.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement was stationed at Elrod Commons and near the Natatorium on Washington and Lee’s campus after the bomb threat was posted. The Lexington Police Department, Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, Virginia Military Institute Police, Washington and Lee’s Department of Public Safety and a bomb-sniffing dog from Elkton’s police force investigated the incident, Lexington’s deputy chief of police Scott Fitzgerald said.

The YikYak post in question read:  “У меня есть бомба.” The Russian phrase means, “I have a bomb.”

By 11:30 p.m. that same night, the threat was found to be not credible, according to a mass alert released to students. Commons remained closed until 5:30 a.m. Friday morning as law enforcement conducted a sweep.

In an email Friday morning, President Will Dudley wrote that the bomb threat posted to YikYak Thursday night was first referred by the app to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. YikYak and the FBI were able to identify the student who posted the threat and pinpoint their location to Commons.

“This situation, like any security threat to our campus — even those intended in jest — will be investigated and handled according to the laws of the Commonwealth and Washington and Lee’s disciplinary procedures,” Dudley wrote Dec. 2.

Fitzgerald told the Phi that the suspect was detained and interviewed by the Lexington Police Department on the night of the incident. The student was released after police officers and university officials determined there was no credible threat. 

Criminal charges may still be filed against the Washington and Lee student as an investigation continues, Fitzgerald said. 

University officials declined to comment on the student’s identity or current whereabouts. And Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs Drewry Sackett said only that Washington and Lee will follow processes outlined in the university handbook when it comes to disciplining the student.

Washington and Lee isn’t the only local college that experienced a bomb threat recently. A  Virginia Military Institute cadet posted a pipe bomb threat to another anonymous platform, Jodel, on Nov. 27. 

The anonymous bomb threat posted by a VMI cadet on social media platform Jodel on Nov. 27. The cadet was identified with information obtained from Jodel. The Commonwealth Attorney may still file charges. (Stef Chiguluri)

VMI Police determined there was no serious threat, according to an email from Superintendent Major General Cedric T. Wins on Nov. 29.

“If I don’t get Cyber Warrior RCO in 3 months, I’m gonna get silly in barracks (I have a pipe bomb in the sentinel box),” the cadet wrote. RCO refers to regimental commanding officer – the highest rank a cadet can reach.

VMI officials were able to obtain information from Jodel that led them to the cadet who posted the comment. 

Police are still investigating the incident with the VMI cadet as well. The Commonwealth Attorney has yet to determine if criminal charges will be filed.

In both cases, local and state law enforcement are responsible for filing criminal charges, Director of Public Safety Ethan Kipnes said. But at Washington and Lee, internal discipline can proceed along more than one pathway.

Kipnes said that Public Safety is unable to determine conduct charges or discipline students in cases like these. 

“Our role is pretty much entirely a fact-finding mission,” he said. 

Kipnes said that Public Safety has filed an incident report for this case, which can include recommended conduct charges. But ultimately, deciding and executing those charges is the responsibility of the Student Judicial Council.

SJC President Naveed Javid, ’23, said the body investigates a wide variety of behavior, from alcohol violations and vandalism to “any conduct disruptive to the life of the university, other universities and colleges or the surrounding community”and “conduct unbecoming of a Washington and Lee student.”

The SJC isn’t limited to those criteria, Javid said. Potential violations are typically reported through Public Safety or members of the campus community. The investigation process varies by case but usually relies on data gathered by Public Safety, Javid said.

The provenly-false post could also be reported as an honor violation to the Executive Committee. EC President James Torbert, ’23, declined to comment on this specific case. 

“Frankly, anything could be an honor violation if it’s appropriately reported,” Torbert said. “But because it’s not codified, no one on the EC can ever prescriptively say that ‘xyz’ is, or even may be, an honor violation.” 

Torbert said students can report incidents even if they do not know who they are accusing. And reporting is not a formalized process. 

“It is literally just bringing it to an EC member and saying, ‘I know, something happened. And I think it’s problematic, and I think y’all should handle it,’” Torbert said. 

After receiving a report, EC members would vote on whether the case constitutes an honor violation and decide whether to proceed with a trial, Torbert said. 

Though many instances of discipline are handled by Washington and Lee’s two student conduct bodies, the EC and SJC, the university’s president may also step in when there’s a threat to the campus community.

“In cases where the University has reason to believe that a student or student organization represents a threat to the well-being of the University community, the President or designee, may suspend or dismiss the student, suspend a student organization, or take other appropriate action,” the 2022-23 student handbook reads.

Kipnes said the fallout from the bomb threat incident is a warning to students on the perils of anonymous platforms like YikYak.

“Decades ago, the saying used to be, ‘You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater,’” Kipnes said. “We live in a different world now, where we’re not all together in a crowded theater. But social media is the crowded theater, and you can’t just say stupid things.”