After Dozens of Bomb Threats, Pitt Students Go Online for Answers

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Bob Donaldson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / AP

Security officers check photo IDs and examine bags at the University of Pittsburgh campus after a bomb threat was received Monday morning, April 9, 2012.

At 3:00 on Monday morning, students at the University of Pittsburgh evacuated to the streets after bomb threats were made against the school—the 57th time students have evacuated campus buildings since mid-February. Later in the day, the University received another eight threats, causing thousands to again evacuate in what’s quickly becoming a surreal routine for the Pitt community.

The threats, arriving at all hours of the day and night, are disrupting every aspect of student life at Pitt, forcing fearful students out of their dorm rooms and onto the couches of strangers living off campus. Rumors fly through the student body at the same frequency as the anonymous threats—that the school will suspend classes indefinitely, that final exams will be optional, that graduation won’t happen until August.

Although a joint terrorism task force and bomb-sniffing dogs sweep each building after it’s evacuated—sometimes closing it overnight—no explosives have ever been found. Yet with each new evacuation warning sent to more than 30,000 students by the school’s Emergency Notification Service (ENS), students’ expectations of a successful end to the semester are fading rapidly.

(MORE: Bomb Threats Leave Pitt Campus on Edge)

The threats began quietly enough. After a written note suggesting a hidden explosive device was found in a women’s restroom on February 13, the campus remained quiet for several weeks. But on March 8, during the school’s spring break, a gunman opened fire inside the medical center’s Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, killing a therapist and injuring seven others at the center of the campus. Six days later, as the community mourned the tragedy, a bomb threat was found scribbled in a men’s restroom, again sending the campus into lockdown.

And as threats trickled in during the following weeks, University officials offered a reward—first $10,000, now $50,000—for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator. United States Attorney David J. Hickton released a statement saying that the Department of Justice will “continue to work cooperatively and aggressively in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh and the FBI.”

The mood changed last week when the frequency of the threats increased to a frantic pace. A barrage of anonymous emails sent to local news outlets began threatening the campus around the clock, evacuating buildings like Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, a 42-story gothic tower. In the last seven days, Pitt Police and the FBI have responded to 47 bomb threats, each time completely evacuating classrooms and conducting extensive sweeps.

Provost Patricia Beeson sent a memo to students explaining the features of the school’s investigations, which include “handwriting analysis,” “comparing [of] class schedules” and “reviewing fingerprint evidence,” but authorities have not released any information about possible leads, suspects or motives.

After nearly two weeks without a definitive answer from investigators or administrators, it’s no surprise that students desperate to make sense of the near-constant threats are turning to the web.

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Andrew Fournaridis, a market research analyst who lives in the area, began blogging as a way to make sense of the quickly growing security concerns at the University.

In an April 2 blog post, Fournaridis outlined his plan to use intelligence analysis to help decision-makers make plans. Updating the blog each time Pitt sent out an ENS alert, he quickly gained a massive following of students and parents also looking for answers. Fournaridis mapped out the threats and analyzed the times of and responses to the investigations. Comments on the site linked to topics such as past precedents and court decisions on institutional liability.

His blog, Stop the Pitt Bomb Threats, rapidly became the source of information for the threats. After a week, the site has received more than 275,000 page views and 1200 comments. Fournaridis’ cool and logical analysis provides a crucial voice of credibility that students feel authorities are deliberately withholding.

The blog also directs readers to a collaborative Google spreadsheet offering deeper analysis of the threats, including charts correlating the schedule of the threats and how long it took police to clear the buildings. Every day, up to 85 anonymous users swarm the spreadsheet, adding and wrangling more and more data as it’s collected daily.

“Everyone is familiar with these informal blogs,” Vice Chancellor Robert Hill tells TIME, “but we encourage all students to read the official university sources too. In order to protect and serve to the best of our ability, we cannot tip off those responsible by making public the products of our investigation.”

Other students, organizing themselves through Reddit, have been discussing potential leads and vetting suspicious comments posted on news stories surrounding the bomb threats. One student, junior Dominika Oliver, created a sprawling Google spreadsheet and Facebook group to offer couches and spare beds to dorm residents wary of sleeping on campus.

As of Monday night, 410 students had joined the group, and 130 had publicly opened their residences to their peers. Some even listed amenities that would discourage students from returning to their dorms (“We always bake cookies,” one proclaimed. Another advertised use of their Wii.)

As the threats continue, Vice Chancellor Hill says, investigators will continue zeroing in on the person responsible. And when they’re finally caught? “When a person has been apprehended, we will have a lot to say, believe me.” Until then, the Internet has become a form of therapy for worried students.

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