Driftwood

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On Sunday March 11, students, faculty and staff were alerted via an urgent email message that threats were made against the university by a student who lives on campus. Classes were canceled the next day, and students who live in the dorms were asked to remain there until further notice.

Early the next morning, another email alerted everyone that the suspect was detained by the New Orleans Police Department. Online media outlets revealed the suspect to be 20-year-old student Nicholas Heard.

Students joined Student Affairs’ staff and other campus staff on Tuesday, March 13 for an open dialogue to talk about what happened. During the discussion, students addressed their general thoughts about the situation, how it was handled and asked various questions. Due to the sensitivity of this issue, students involved in the discussion will remain anonymous.

“I couldn’t recognize if something was going on with him or not … but I always thought he was a pretty cool person,” said one student.

Many other students reported similar experiences regarding Heard, saying that they’d seen him on campus or had classes with him and hadn’t thought much of it. However, some students recalled times in class where Heard’s remarks concerned them, usually regarding conversations that involved politics or social topics.

Director of Student Accountability and Disability Services Amy King said, “I don’t think most of us in this room would ever be qualified to predict what an outburst might mean or what it says about anything underlying it. … Some people referred to his reactions in class as outbursts and other people said he was opinionated and passionate.”

This ambiguity caused many students to question when exactly is the right time to seek help for other students of concern.

King said, “If you become concerned, talk to a faculty member. If you are in a class with someone where that type of behavior became disruptive to the course, then have that conversation with a faculty member, because maybe they can talk with the student and offer resources and advisement to the student.”

Though many students admitted to not knowing Heard personally, deeper insight was offered by those who did know him.

“He had a deep distrust of therapists. I know that he came from a very rough house [with] mental abuse, but it was such a hostile environment that it just wasn’t healthy. It created this constant paranoia,” said one student.

Director of Student Involvement and Leadership LeeAnne Sipe encouraged everyone in the room to consider all possible sides to the story. “We have no idea what Nick experienced, we have no idea what Nick said, and we have to look at this with empathy,” she said.

While some students praised the university for handling the situation in a timely and watchful manner, others criticized the university. One student in particular voiced strong opposition for the way the situation was handled.

“I feel like UNO did not support this student in the way that he deserved. … I think y’all are so wrong for demonizing this student from the get-go. I don’t know if you all have been reading news media – mind you, I think UNO is doing this for a scapegoat and a cover-up to make their image look good – but news media is calling this guy a terrorist. He is being charged with terrorist crimes. He has lost his rights to an education,” the student said.

She said that she disagrees with the fact that the situation was conveyed via mass emails and thought the language used was harsh and unnecessary, meant to instill fear in students and criminalize Heard, though he was unnamed in the email.

She said that she feels Heard was denied due process and is owed reparations. She also demanded that proof be given and for the students who reported Heard to police to be held accountable and made known.

Sipe addressed her concerns and reinforced the validity of such feelings. “Student affairs was not involved in this process whatsoever and, legitimately, the only information that we have is the same information that you all have,” Sipe said. “We will absolutely share your concerns and we’re in many ways just as powerless, if not more so, than you all might feel, and we don’t influence policy.”

Sipe noted that the nature of the emails’ language is partially due to the students contacting police and not Student Affairs first, meaning that there was no opportunity to review it. King added that the students who reported the incident would indeed have to take the stand as witnesses in court, or else there’d essentially be no case, since the burden of proving guilt lies within the prosecution.

“As far as law enforcement’s concerned, they’re usually [present] to serve the public at large … their reaction to it was thinking of a larger amount of people than just one person, and they had to make a decision fairly quickly … to serve the public,” said Career Services’ job location and development coordinator Tyrone Shoemaker. “Unfortunately, yes, there were some words said that made him a suspect of something, and they had to react in that way … In the U.S., right now, we’re pretty sensitive about things that [have] happened in Florida and other places.”

Because of the seriousness of the accusations against Heard, many students expressed concern that he wouldn’t be able to return to school or wouldn’t be treated the same if so.

Said Shoemaker, “We can’t say that the case was mishandled because we don’t know the details of what was reported,” King said. “If he is cleared, and he wants to come back to UNO, he can go through the process that needs to happen and he’s welcome to come back … at Student affairs, we will support him.”

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