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Bomb threat at Harvard University prompts evacuations & cancelled final exams

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A bomb threat on four Harvard University buildings proved to be unfounded after an email sent early morning on Monday, Dec. 16, 2013 prompted immediate evacuations and the cancellations of final exams set in those buildings. At 8:40 a.m. the university received the email about the bomb threat, and in less than an hour later the state's "bomb squad" was notified. For a couple of hours the Cambridge, Massachusetts area looked like a disaster zone with the number of police, bomb squad and K9 units on the ground and helicopters over in the air. One by one the buildings were checked and reopened, and all four buildings were reopened by the afternoon. Adding to the panic in Boston just before the noon hour the University of Massachusetts-Boston reported there may be a gunman on the campus, which also ended up being unfounded.

Especially after the Boston Marathon bombing all precautions were taken, even though the claims were unconfirmed. The Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) received the email threat and then notified the authorities of the email delineating the threat. The threats led to responses from the local police to the state and federal level with the Cambridge and Boston and police departments responding and then the Massachusetts State Police and the FBI and Homeland Security.

President Barack Obama was also informed of the bomb threat and was briefed as the investigation progressed. A White House official stated; "The President has been briefed about the situation at Harvard University. We continue to encourage the public to follow directions from the local officials. The White House will remain in touch with our federal, state, and local partners and the president will continue to receive briefings as needed." The President graduated Harvard Law School in 1992.

The Science Center and Thayer, Sever and Emerson halls were the focus of the bomb threat and subsequent evacuations. The three halls, Thayer Hall, which is a freshman dorm and Sever and Emerson Halls, which contains classrooms and lecture halls all border Harvard Yard, while the Science Center is just outside from the yard. Students were allowed to pass through Harvard Yard, but had to show their University ID card.

The university notified faculty and students on their website and through emails, text messages and on social media sites including Facebook and Twitter. The message sent out read; "unconfirmed reports of explosives at four sites on campus: Science Center, Thayer, Sever, and Emerson. Please evacuate those buildings now." The message on Harvard's website read: "Out of an abundance of caution, the buildings have been evacuated while the report is investigated. Harvard's focus is on the safety of our students, faculty and staff." The warnings on Harvard's Twitter where divided with separate tweets; "Alert: Unconfirmed reports of explosives at four sites on campus"… "HUPD and CPD are on the scene and investigating"… and "Stand by for more info. View emergency page for updates."

Alarms went off to alert students in those building as to the potential danger. Students leaving Thayer Hall, the dorm had to leave immediately, many not yet dressed in the early morning, evacuated into the cold weather outside. While the students in the lecture halls where just receiving their final exam instructions where the alarm rang. The evacuated students received Harvard MessageMe alerts with information about the threats. All evacuated students were sent to stay in the freshman dining room Annenberg Hall where Dean of undergraduate education Jay Harris told them that the final exams were cancelled. According to the university student paper the Harvard Crimson, writing on Twitter; "Following announcement, students erupt in applause."

One by one the buildings were examined and reopened; Thayer and Emerson halls were given the clear at 1 p.m. followed by Sever Hall and Harvard Yard just before 2 p.m., while the Science Center was the last building cleared. By 2:45 p.m. it was over and afternoon final exams in those classroom buildings proceeded as scheduled, however, the police will be continuing their investigation. Students with final exams affected where notified as to when they would be rescheduled.

Harvard Executive Vice President Katie Lapp issued a statement after the buildings were reopened about the incident; "I am relieved to report that no suspicious devices were found. Safeguarding our community in this instance unfortunately required the disruption of exams and the evacuation of one of our freshman dormitories. The HUPD, in close cooperation with local, state and federal agencies, is continuing to investigate this incident to determine who may be responsible. Please be assured that the safety of our students, faculty and staff is our top priority. At this time, we know of no specific threat to campus and activities are returning to normal."

Later in the day at 11:30 a.m. the University of Massachusetts-Boston, which was also holding final exams had reports of a gunman at the McCormick Building, leading to the building being evacuated, and the university making the announcement through Twitter. The search of the building by "university, Boston and state police" yielded no gunman on the campus, and the call was concluded to be a hoax. By a little after noon, the building was cleared and it did not affect the undergraduate and graduate exams taking place.

The false bomb threats at Harvard and gun man at the UMass Boston is only the latest in a string of false reports on university campuses. At the end of November, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut was on lockdown for practically the whole day from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m after a male called into 911 saying their roommate was heading to Yale University with a gun. The campus and the police investigated eyewitness reports from an employee saying they saw a gunman on the Old Campus, while SWAT teams invaded the campus. At that time the university was on Thanksgiving break and most of the students and faculty had left the campus. It ended up being a hoax, but on Dec. 9, 2013 New Haven police announced they arrested the person who phoned in the threat.

While in early June, another member of the Ivy League, Princeton University was also the focus on a bomb threat hoax. At Princeton there was "a bomb threat to multiple unspecified campus buildings," leading to the whole campus being evacuated. Since classes had already ended for the semester and commencement was over, the evacuation affected very few students, and mostly university staff. Still for most of the day the university's campus was closed.

Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are academic & universities news, particularly history & library news.

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