As the country grapples with a rise in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic incidents, federal authorities and university administrators are struggling to maintain the fine line between ensuring security on college campuses and protecting free speech.
In many cases, schools were reluctant to intervene to stop speech that could be perceived as threatening to one group but as expression of free expression to another.
Even within the Biden administration, officials at the White House and the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Education have long debated how to strike the right balance, two administration officials tell NBC News. The Department for Education recently issued guidance for schools reminding them of their legal obligation to tackle discrimination. On Thursday, the department opened investigations into four elite universities over incidents of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
At the University of Connecticut’s main campus in rural Storrs, students from the Muslim Student Association, Students for Justice in Palestine and the Hillel All said they had received calls from parents worried about their safety.
In Hillel, posters depicting kidnapped Israelis mysteriously disappeared overnight. Then, the Jewish students say, they saw posters on campus demanding freedom for Palestine by any means necessary. And her Instagram post promoting a talk by a massacre survivor at the Re’im music festival received angry and anti-Semitic comments.
“I think that anything that has to do with violence affects me personally very much. It’s very scary because I feel like words can turn into actions very quickly, like we’ve seen on other college campuses,” said Yana Tartakovskiy, a student at UConn who says she now has her Star of David necklace hidden so that she would not be identified as Jewish on campus.
Muslim students are also afraid of being identified. Muneeb Syed, president of the Muslim Student Association, said many women who wear hijabs now wear hoodies when walking alone across campus. Recently, he said, a Muslim woman was leaving a pro-Palestinian rally on campus when she was harassed by a car in which men pulled up to yell at her.
A friend of his, who wears a hijab on campus but didn’t feel comfortable revealing her identity, told NBC News: “My parents are definitely worried. They call me and ask, “Are you sure you’re safe?” You know, they want to make sure I go to my dorm at a certain time just so I don’t go out and not be exposed to any risk or potential risk outside am.”
For recent graduate Lena Maarouf, the threat seemingly came out of nowhere. One morning she received a voicemail from a number in Oklahoma. She believes that’s because her number is still listed on the UConn organization Students for Justice in Palestine’s website.
In the message played for NBC News, a man with a southern accent said: “Yes, I am one of the supporters of the death of all of Hamas.” They support baby murderers, people who rape grandmothers. You’re just another sand n***** terrorist, that’s all you are. So you guys get together so the Mossad can take pictures of you because I can’t wait to see you dead.”
Maarouf said she was filled with a deep sense of fear after hearing it.
“It makes you wonder, ‘If they’re going to do anything to get your number, what else can they do?’ And what kind of connections might they have with someone on campus?’” Maarouf said.
While both Muslim and Jewish students agreed that they do not feel safe, they disagreed on whether there should be greater security measures on campus.
At Hillel, Jewish students recruit, hire, and train students who can provide additional security in the building. They have received state funding and are working with local police and fire departments to train student security personnel in best practices.
DHS offers free security assessments to universities and K-12 schools through the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).
CISA’s executive director, Brandon Wales, told NBC News that the agency’s physical security consultants can support schools in different ways depending on their needs.
“It could be that there is an entrance and exit to a facility. “Is the structure right to prevent opponents from entering a facility but also allow students to escape if necessary?” Wales said. “It may be important to consider physical security lighting in critical areas that would allow an offender to hide and attack students.”
But Maarouf and other members of Students for Justice in Palestine said they would not trust DHS to protect them, given the history of Muslim Americans profiled and in the sights of the DHS.
“You have to look at their track record: How have they treated Muslims in the past? Will they really believe us? “Will they listen to our real concerns?” Maarouf said.
UConn administrators say they are investigating the voicemail Maarouf received as well as a threatening email received by Muslim students at another UConn campus. “UConn unequivocally condemns Islamophobia, just as it condemns anti-Semitism and all forms of hate.”
But Jewish and Muslim students who spoke to NBC News said they want the school to do more to acknowledge the incidents across campus and engage students in informed discussion about the conflict and history in the Middle East to include.
“We really want the university to start by actually acknowledging that these events are happening primarily to the larger UConn community,” Syed said. “Only when that happens do we believe the university and students will take responsibility for their actions and truly begin working to create a culture that promotes diversity and inclusion.”