College heightens library security in response to “disturbing and threatening” letters

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College heightens library security in response to “disturbing and threatening” letters

Guards from Asia Security perform a bag check at the Dewitt Wallace Library entrance. Photo by Kori Suzuki '21.

Guards from Asia Security perform a bag check at the Dewitt Wallace Library entrance. Photo by Kori Suzuki '21.

Guards from Asia Security perform a bag check at the Dewitt Wallace Library entrance. Photo by Kori Suzuki '21.

Guards from Asia Security perform a bag check at the Dewitt Wallace Library entrance. Photo by Kori Suzuki '21.

Hannah Catlin, News Editor

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For three days last week — Wednesday afternoon through Friday evening — Macalester Security implemented a bag check at the front and only entrance to the DeWitt Wallace Library.

The decision came after three library staff members received letters that Director of Security James Kurtz described as “disturbing and threatening.” All were delivered to the library, one on Friday, Oct. 11 and two on Monday, Oct. 14.

While Kurtz said his office was made aware of the first letter, it initially didn’t consider the threat credible.

“On Monday, when we discovered there were two additional letters — all three are from the same source — that’s when we realized this was a little bit more than just a disturbing letter,” Kurtz said. 

Though the letters were unsigned and discovered at different times, Kurtz said investigators determined there was likely just one sender, “by the way they were presented.” He declined to elaborate on the content of the letters.

With a pattern established, Security contacted the St. Paul Police Department (SPPD), which opened an official investigation.

The SPPD began conducting interviews with library staff and student workers last week. They also sent the letters and their envelopes to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for DNA and fingerprint analysis.

Meanwhile, the college initiated bag checks on Wednesday afternoon, employing Asia Security, an agency Macalester has hired in the past to monitor school dances and other special events.

Anyone entering the library was required to open their bags to be searched by two agents sitting at a table to the right of the main entryway.

Temporary signage in front of the Dewitt Wallace Library entrance. Photo by Kori Suzuki ’21.

For library student manager Rachel Liebherr ’21, seeing the guards, who were right next to her station at the front desk, made the situation seem real. 

“They’re not saying what the letters [said], understandably, but that just kind of makes it more abstract to me,” she said. “But seeing security there, it’s like ‘oh, this is actually a threat’ and it shows me the library is taking it seriously.”

Even so, Liebherr said she doesn’t necessarily feel more safe with the bag check in place.

Jan Serie Center for Scholarship and Teaching (CST) Program Manager Marga Miller agreed.

“I think that it’s good that the college is taking it seriously — I don’t know that I feel safer knowing that there are two folks standing there,” Miller said. “I think the gesture is significant.”

Psychology professor and Director of the CST Joan Ostrove also felt the gesture was important, though she recognized that the heightened security might be uncomfortable for some library-goers.

“I think that it’s really important that the college take seriously the fact that some of our colleagues were explicitly threatened,” Ostrove said. “I think that it’s also possible to acknowledge the challenges associated with bringing in outside security.

“I do think that doing nothing is not an option, and it’s not an easy thing to figure out,” she continued. “To do something that doesn’t also replicate the kind of surveillance [and] security… that make certain people feel even less safe.”

While Liebherr only worked one shift while the screening station was in place, she said she observed a lower-than-average turnout of students at the library during that time and even saw some turn away because of the screening.

“There were a few times when students walked in and saw the bag check… handed something to their friend and were like, ‘Can you just return this for me… I don’t want to deal with that,’” Liebherr said.

However, Kurtz said he had yet to hear an explicit negative response to the measure, which he said was generally well-received among students. 

“I’ve been over there and have personally heard many students saying, ‘Thank you. We really appreciate the efforts that you’re doing to increase security,’” Kurtz said.

For now, however, the immediate threat seems to have passed. As of Friday evening Security suspended the screening, though Kurtz said that if the library were to receive additional letters, the office would take action accordingly.

“In my experience, [the letters] really kind of were a lower level threat,” Kurtz said. “It wasn’t anything that appeared real imminent, it wasn’t very graphic. We took the measures we felt were appropriate.”

While Kurtz said he doesn’t know who wrote the letters or from where they were sent, he suspected it was someone associated with the college because of the “connection” between the recipients.

“They all work in the same building, they all know each other, they’re all staff members, they’ve all worked here for a long time,” Kurtz said. “It just doesn’t seem likely that it would be somebody who is not from our Macalester community.”

Kurtz implored anyone with information to come forward.

“If somebody’s involved in this, and they want to come and talk to us, now would be the time to do it because we have a little bit of control over [the investigation],” he said. “Once St. Paul [SPPD] is involved in it, if they do identify who the person is, there’ll be very serious consequences — things that will stick with somebody probably for the rest of their lives.”

Library Director Terri Fishel declined to comment.