Keeping Safe

By Zachary Block '99 / January / February 2002
July 1st, 2007
Before September 11, the thought of a plane flattening the Sciences Library or an anthrax attack forcing the closure of a dorm never crossed the mind of University administrators.

"We were more focused on the kinds of things that can happen from within and natural disasters," says Brown Environmental Health & Safety Director Stephen Morin. "Since September 11, we have considered things that might happen on campus as a result of an outside influence."

Chief among those outside influences is the threat of bioterrorism. After anthrax scares made people look at their mail in a new, sinister light, Brown police received more than a dozen calls, all false alarms, about suspicious packages and mysterious white substances. In one case, campus police were called to a residence hall to investigate a suspicious white powder in a garbage can, only to discover it was sugar from a discarded bag of Sour Patch Kids candy. Three of the incidents, including one that forced the evacuation of 120 employees from the off-campus Development Office, were serious enough that the packages were sent to state health officials for testing. In that incident, and in another that shut down the mail room for an hour, Brown environmental health workers donned full-body protective suits to inspect the sites. All the tests came back negative.

Concerns about bioterrorism have spurred efforts to better control access to campus labs where hazardous materials are stored, and prompted a review of biological agents on campus. While Morin declines to reveal what specific agents are held in Brown labs, he does say that they don't include anthrax or smallpox. ("I don't think the materials that we have on our campus would be targets that terrorists would want to make weapons of mass destruction," he says.)

Another concern is the protection of students - particularly the school's approximately 950 international students, including more than 100 natives of "Muslim-majority" countries - from one another and from the outside community. While Brown avoided any major incidents of harassment, a small number of students did report some minor episodes, mostly drive-by name calling. Female Muslim students wearing headscarves drew much of the attention, but some of the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim backlash also fell on students belonging to neither group: Indians and Hispanics.

"We thought about not walking around at night," says Mohamad Bissat, a junior from Lebanon studying business economics who is president of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. "We were a bit worried, but with time we started to feel more secure."

Only one student, a married graduate student from Saudi Arabia, returned home after the attacks. But Defne Dellaloglu, a junior from Turkey who is president of Brown's international student group, BRIO, said a number of Kuwaiti students had considered their government's offer of free plane tickets home. In the end, though, they decided to stay.

Brown's international community has also largely escaped the Justice Department dragnet investigating supposed terrorist cells in the United States. Brown's police chief, Colonel Paul Verrecchia, says he did arrange for the FBI to meet with one student, who allegedly had contact with a student under investigation from another university. He said campus police were also contacted by the terrorist task force in New York City to make sure another student was indeed enrolled at the University.

Both Dellaloglu and Bissat credit the Brown community's awareness of religious and racial diversity for helping put Arab and Muslim students at ease. Still, with the "war against terrorism" raging in Afghanistan, international students remained on edge.

"You never know what's going to happen because it seems like they are fighting an unknown enemy," Bissat says. "God knows what's going to happen."

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January / February 2002