Pitt intends to continue semester despite bomb threats

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The University of Pittsburgh does not plan to end the semester early over a series of bomb threats, but Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said Friday the school will facilitate completion of coursework by students opting to leave over safety concerns.

"Any student who feels that leaving campus before the end of the academic term is the best alternative can make that decision," Mr. Nordenberg said in a late-afternoon statement. "We will do our best to facilitate the completion of his or her remaining academic responsibilities."

His two-page statement did not specify the means -- online or otherwise -- by which students can finish their coursework remotely. That will vary case-by-case on the campus of nearly 29,000 students and "it really is the responsibility of the student and the professor to come to an understanding," Pitt spokesman Robert Hill said.

The chancellor's statement came as a new wave of threats and evacuations hit five campus buildings Friday, and hours after the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania said the string of threats is now being "vigorously, aggressively and thoroughly" investigated using all available means, including the region's Joint Terrorism Task Force.

U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton, in his statement, called campus safety and welfare a top priority and commended the university community for its resiliency, saying the matter had engendered unconscionable fear and disruption. The threats -- 18 in all, some for more than one building -- began Feb. 13.

Mr. Hickton also expressed support for the way Pitt has reacted to the threats.

"The University of Pittsburgh is exercising appropriate regard for safety, through its notification system and through evacuations when threats are received and evaluated, while refusing to allow such threats to paralyze the entire university community in its pursuit of learning and teaching," the U.S. attorney said.

Agencies on the terrorism task force include the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Secret Service, Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Federal Air Marshals, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the FBI, along with local agencies, including Pittsburgh police and Pitt police.

Final exams for the spring term do not start until April 23, but some students edgy over the ongoing threats already have left campus.

In his statement, Mr. Nordenberg noted the demands being placed on authorities both on and off campus, and he expressed gratitude for outside assistance with the evacuations and investigation. He noted that no explosive devices had been found after any threat.

He said Pitt had consulted with law enforcement about the school's response -- including evacuating every building threatened and conducting a methodical search before allowing inhabitants to return -- and received assurances that the steps were appropriate.

"That does not mean, of course, that there are not those on campus and off who would argue for something different," the chancellor said.

But arguments that Pitt should do less given the disruption and number of resources used for repeated evacuations seemed inconsistent "with the priority that we assign to safety," Mr. Nordenberg said.

At the same time, he added, Pitt has weighed arguments from those who say Pitt should close campus for a specific time or indefinitely. That alternative "has not been viewed as the most appropriate choice," Mr. Nordenberg said.

"Obviously, we all wish that these threats, and the challenges that they present, had never been visited upon us," Mr. Nordenberg wrote.

"It is true as a number of people have said in comforting tones to me that this could have happened anywhere," Mr. Nordenberg said. "But sadly, it is happening at Pitt on a campus that is widely recognized as safe by all comparative measure and is known for its sense of community."

Those words did little to comfort students, some teary-eyed, who surrounded administrators such as dean of students Kathy Humphrey during Friday's evacuations, asking for increased communication from the university and more detailed plans for the future.

Mr. Hickton declined to discuss specifics of the investigation. He asked those with information that would assist the investigation to call the FBI at 412-432-4000.

As the investigation continued Friday, so did the threats. Pitt's emergency notification said just after 6 p.m. that four buildings -- Forbes, Sutherland, Lothrop and Holland residence halls -- were being evacuated because of a threat. The 42-story Cathedral of Learning was evacuated an hour earlier due to a separate threat.

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Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com. Liz Navratil contributed. First Published April 7, 2012 12:00 PM


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