DOVER, Del. (AP) — The remnants of lanterns hanging from trees were mistaken this week for nooses, prompting a social media frenzy at the University of Delaware and a police investigation of a possible hate crime, the campus police chief said Wednesday.
Police received a report Tuesday night about "noose-like" items in a tree outside Mitchell Hall, where an appearance by a conservative political commentator drew a Black Lives Matter protest on Monday.
After conferring with senior leaders, including acting university president Nancy Targett, police issued a text alert about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday informing the community that they were investigating a "racist display" on the Newark campus, where blacks account for about 5 percent of undergraduates.
"Social media was really running with this, and there were reports that there were nooses in trees and that kind of thing," police chief Patrick Ogden said. "When you look at the pictures, and you consider the event we had the night before, I think a reasonable person could make that assumption, that it looked noose-like."
Shortly after the alert, Targett sent out an email to the university community.
"Such cowardly and reprehensible acts are clearly designed to intimidate and frighten, and they are unacceptable on our campus," Targett wrote. "I assure you we will work diligently to get to the bottom of this situation, identify the person or persons responsible and hold them accountable for their actions."
In response to the alert, several students came forward to report that the objects had been there for some time. One student said she and her friends had taken some of the lanterns used at a June alumni weekend event as decorations, leaving remnants of twine and metal frames behind.
"There's no doubt in my mind that they were left over from the alumni weekend event," said Ogden, adding that the objects were about 12 feet off the ground.
Targett sent out a second email shortly before 7 a.m. Wednesday informing the community that the noose-like objects were actually lantern hangers.
Ogden said he does not believe university officials overreacted, noting that the alert prompted quick responses.
"Emotions were elevated, especially amongst our students of color, and I think the university wanted to assure them that we were taking this incident very seriously," he said.