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An image sent in a Snapchat group among UW-Eau Claire student athletes depicts a cross burning at a Ku Klux Klan event. Five student athletes have been suspended from the university's football team, and the UW-Eau Claire dean of students office is conducting a formal investigation into the incident.

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt provided more information Thursday regarding the suspension of five student athletes from the university’s football team in connection with racist Snapchat messages, which included references to the Black Male Empowerment group on campus.

UW-Eau Claire Dean of Students LaRue Pierce and his office are investigating the incident. The investigation remains open, but Schmidt expects it will conclude soon. In addition to suspension from the football team, Schmidt said “additional, appropriate sanctions may result, pending the outcomes of the investigation.”

Mike Rindo, assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations, said Wednesday the university cannot identify the suspended students because an investigation is ongoing.

The messages in the Snapchat string included a picture of a cross burning at a Ku Klux Klan event. “For all who can’t make the BME meeting, (name deleted) and I are holding WME tonight at 7,” a message reads, referencing a non-existent White Male Empowerment group.

“I’ll be there but I’ll be like 5 minutes late. Think the cross will still be burning? Don’t wanna miss that again,” said another message.

“Yeah we don’t do it till 10 minutes in. That pic is from last weeks meeting,” replied a message referencing the burning cross.

Schmidt released a statement Thursday afternoon condemning the messages and providing updates on the investigation and plans going forward.

“This is a dark time for our university,” Schmidt wrote. “This incident has left our campus shocked, saddened and, for some, scared … Let me begin by apologizing for not sending this message sooner. I had hoped to send it yesterday, but I wanted to make sure I had accurate information to share with you; I simply ran out of time. For that, I am sorry.”

Schmidt, who met Wednesday evening with BME members, called the messages despicable and disgusting.

“The use of an image of a burning cross at an apparent Ku Klux Klan rally is especially disturbing,” Schmidt wrote. “It is an image that conjures memories of some of the worst atrocities committed against people of color, especially African Americans, in our recent national history. Some of our students, faculty and staff of color likely have had family members who were targeted by such Klan actions. For them, this is personal and visceral. Regardless of intent, the very real impact of the social media posts was that they negatively targeted a specific group of UW-Eau Claire students.”

UW-Eau Claire senior and BME President Lewis Balom called for the university to take “long-term action” as a result of the incident.

“I want to see action that’s going to make change,” Balom said, adding that suspending athletes from the football team amounts to “a slap on the wrist.”

BME began in February 2017 and has around a dozen members, many of whom are current or former Blugold football players. The group held an informational session Wednesday evening with hopes of increasing its numbers. Balom and BME Vice President Jalen Thomas were both encouraged by the turnout Wednesday.

In the statement, Schmidt also provided updates on activity taken by university officials since Tuesday afternoon in response to the Snapchat messages.

UW-Eau Claire athletic director Dan Schumacher immediately suspended all social media groups involving university athletic teams were “until and unless they are being monitored by coaches and other athletics staff members.”

Schumacher and football head coach Wesley Beschorner held an emergency meeting with the football team “to discuss the incident, and to make clear this kind of racist behavior is not acceptable for any Blugold who represents UW-Eau Claire while wearing our university uniform.”

Dang Yang, director of the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, and his staff reached out to students of color to offer resources and support. OMA employees and Demetrius Smith, the university’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion program director, met privately with students Thursday evening.

Schmidt encouraged all university members “to continue to report racist or hate incidents to our Bias/Hate Incident Response Team.”

On Thursday afternoon, UW-Eau Claire Counseling Services tweeted a statement offering support and listing drop-in hours at the OMA office in Centennial Hall.

“Counseling Services is aware that many students have been impacted by an online thread that included racist discourse and a picture of a KKK rally with a burning cross targeted members of Black Male Empowerment (BME),” the statement reads in part. “...Remember you do not have to manage everything on your own, we are here to help.”

Near the end of Schmidt’s statement, the chancellor noted the incident has his full attention and said he will provide another update before Thanksgiving break begins Wednesday.

“I know we have much work to do around (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) issues,” Schmidt wrote. “I am committed to concluding our investigation in a timely way.”

UW-Eau Claire criminal justice professor Justin Patchin felt shocked and disheartened when he heard about the incident.

Patchin has worked at UW-Eau Claire since 2004 and doesn’t believe the bigoted attitudes expressed in the group represent a larger campus problem, but he said issues clearly persist.

“I don’t personally get the sense that this is a systematic problem, but there is definitely room for improvement,” Patchin told the Leader-Telegram. “We like to think we’re educating our students to have not only an open mind but realize how hurtful that messaging is… (but) we still have people who think it’s OK to joke about this.”

Patchin, who has worked on the intersection of teens and technology since 2002, noted that social media can quickly make messages like the Snapchat conversation public. He said if the group discussion occurred in person rather than digitally, an investigation likely would not have begun so swiftly.

“If it weren’t for social media, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it,” Patchin said.

The original conversation occurred in a private group chat, but Patchin said the students “are old enough and presumably savvy enough to realize that when you post something online or send a message, there’s always a record of it.”

The Snapchat messages appear underneath the names of students, which seems to be clear evidence of who was involved. However, Patchin urged caution before jumping to conclusions, especially since the university investigation is ongoing. He noted it was possible, if unlikely, that a Snapchat account was hacked or a fake account was made to impersonate a student athlete.

To improve the campus climate moving forward, Patchin said university members need to have conversations about the country’s history of race relations and how to communicate with people from different backgrounds.

This is the second racist incident UW-Eau Claire has publicly dealt with this school year. In September a message telling junior Kayde Langer, who is Red Lake Ojibwe, to “go back to the rez” included a racial slur written on her dorm room door.

An investigation into the incident remains open, and Langer said she has not received any updates on the investigation since it began.