Year ends in frustration, disruption for Pitt seniors



Years from now, University of Pittsburgh senior Brittany Lowe may not give much thought to the mysterious threats that intruded upon her senior year of college, bringing with them bomb-sniffing dogs and seemingly endless evacuations.

In the end, all that may matter is that she has her degree.

Just the same, she is mightily annoyed right now as are many of her graduating peers. The threats have stolen a sliver of her final days at Pitt, injecting unease and paranoia into what should have been a celebratory moment in her life.

Like a number of her classmates, she intends to forgo the main commencement ceremony in the Petersen Events Center next Sunday, unwilling to put older relatives and others through the upheaval that would result if the 12,500-seat arena were to be evacuated.

"If there is going to be a bomb threat for graduation ceremonies, it's most likely going to be for the big one, the one that's at the Pete," she said.

So Ms. Lowe, 22, a psychology major from Du Bois, plans instead to walk on Friday in a smaller ceremony within her department. "They're not going to ruin my graduation experience completely."

Of course, she acknowledged, that ceremony could be disrupted, too.

"I've waited four years to graduate college and my grandparents and family have to travel two and a half hours to come here," she said. "If a bomb threat happens and they can't see me graduate, I'm going to be disappointed.

"I know they're going to be disappointed too," she said. "I'm the first in my family to go to college."

With the start of final exams tomorrow, a campus now accustomed to being rousted from dorms in the middle of the night, told suddenly to leave class for their safety and subjected to ID and bag checks upon entering buildings has reached the final surreal days of a most surreal semester.

Since Feb. 13, threats received day and night have prompted more than 130 building evacuations. No explosives have been found, and no arrests have been made in the threats -- most delivered by email -- despite an intensifying investigation by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

Without providing numbers, Pitt spokesman Robert Hill said cap and gown orders suggest interest in the Petersen ceremony is up this year. But when asked last week, he could not say if Pitt was committed to going through with the event as planned.

For some graduating seniors like Leah Trimble, 21, from New Castle, the threats have robbed her of her chance to say final goodbyes. Many of her friends have taken up the university's offer to finish the semester away from campus.

"A lot of my friends who live in the dorms have actually left," she said. "For me, it was sad to see them leave."

Even if she's not in a building being evacuated, "there are constant reminders, constant [emergency notification] text messages; you're waking up in the middle of the night," she said. "I get them at 3 a.m. Everyone is sick of it."

There has been talk on the campus of 29,000 students of seeking refunds from Pitt for canceled classes and dorm space vacated early. But most students interviewed held Pitt blameless, largely powerless to stop the threats.

It's a time that ought to be spent on concerns such as studies and jobs rather than "reading up on bombs and who could be doing this," Ms. Lowe said.

She found a measure of the tense mood on campus as she scanned the police blotter of the student newspaper, The Pitt News, and noted all the reports of suspicious persons on campus.

She worked to prepare a presentation she was to make to her evening class in communication process, only to learn that a bomb threat in the 42-story Cathedral of Learning canceled class that day. She prepared a second time, but that class was canceled by a threat, too. Finally, she said, the professor canceled the presentation.

"All that time wasted," she said.

Ms. Trimble was part-way through an exam in her business class when a threat came in to Posvar Hall. The test was canceled.

She said she feels for students who are depending on finals to pull up their grades and have lost valuable study and class time to cancellations. "They're paying to go to these classes that aren't happening," she said.

Senior James Pancio, 21, a history major from Philadelphia, said one of his finals, introduction to criminal law, already has been canceled and class grades will be based on work completed to date. A final in another class has been converted to a paper assignment.

"I'm supposed to have two [finals] on Monday, both in Posvar Hall, which has had multiple, multiple threats," he said.

Taking finals in August wouldn't work for him. He'll be in China that month teaching.

The threats have stressed faculty, too.

In any year, professors receive pleas for leeway as exams approach and must distinguish the truly legitimate requests from those gaming the system hoping for an edge.

John Baker, who teaches in the dental school, could not justify allowing students in one undergraduate class to take an exam unsupervised off-site. At the same time, he said he worries about the impact of students uprooted night after night for hours at a time.

"I had one student email me who said in one day she had four different buildings she was evacuated from," he said. "The problem is how can students take final exams under those conditions?"

Kathy Humphrey, vice provost and dean of students, told students in an email April 13 that if a threat interrupts an exam, professors will have instructions for where they should go.

Pitt gave students an extra week to switch from a letter grade to satisfactory/unsatisfactory designation and said those on academic probation would not face suspension this semester, but instead would have probation extended through the fall.

As he tossed a football with friends outside along Semple Street last week, Pitt senior John Forrest, whose grandfather was a dental school dean at Pitt, said he's concerned about the toll not only on students and their families but on the university itself.

"At first, it wasn't a big deal -- you thought, 'Oh, a bomb threat here or there,' " said Mr. Forrest, 22, from Ben Avon. "But at this point it's definitely hurting the university, a university I care about, care about a lot. It runs in my family."

He'd like to know one thing from the person or persons responsible --"Why?"

education

Bill Schackner:bschackner@post-gazette.com, or 412-263-1977. First Published April 22, 2012 2:45 PM


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