Frisbees were flying on the campus at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth last week, a welcome sign of normal spring life on a campus that was turned inside-out one year ago this week.
After the Boston Marathon bombings, the small campus in Southeastern Massachusetts briefly became famous for reasons no college would choose. One of the suspected bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was enrolled as a student when he and his brother allegedly chose to bring tragedy to the most cherished of Boston traditions.
The Marathon anniversary — so painful for the entire region — strikes a deep nerve in Dartmouth, where the shock of having lived with an alleged terrorist in its midst has never fully subsided. Tsarnaev, attracted to the school as a place to study the history of his Chechen homeland, was never much of a student. By many accounts he was a stoner who was on the verge of being asked to leave. Yet the heinous actions he is charged with threatened to define a student body with which he had virtually nothing in common. It all makes for a fraught anniversary.
“The actions of that one student or the others shouldn’t diminish the passion and work ethic of all our other students,” UMass Dartmouth president Divina Grossman said last week. “This is a campus where a lot of the students work part time or full time; many of them volunteer and give back to the community.”
A year ago, Grossman was nearing the end of her first year at the helm of the school. Nothing had brought Tsarnaev to her attention. In fact, the first report she received from her staff suggested that a former student had been identified as a suspect in the bombings. Grossman was floored to discover that he was a current student, and that he had blithely returned to campus after the tragedy. He spent time in his dorm, worked out in the gym. He and some friends allegedly disposed of a backpack he had taken to the Marathon.
He may even have been present as the campus held a quiet but heavily attended vigil for his victims.
“That he could come back and act as though nothing happened — that shocks me to this day,” Grossman said.
The violence allegedly perpetrated by the brothers Tsarnaev prompted a lockdown in Boston, while their identification brought chaos to Dartmouth. The campus was evacuated, and searched by law enforcement at all levels. The other UMass campuses sent police officers to Dartmouth, just in case. An FBI helicopter landed on the green outside Grossman’s office. The whole scene was surreal.
Grossman also endured withering criticism for refusing to release Tsarnaev’s academic record, even though it was protected by confidentiality laws. Eventually she appealed to the US Department of Education for permission to release his college history, but was denied.
Once things quieted down, Grossman appointed a task force of outside academics and law enforcement personnel to examine the school’s response to the bombing. They found that the crisis had been handled appropriately. They also made recommendations for future crisis management, unlikely as it feels that anything comparable could ever occur.
Otherwise, students at the campus accidentally made famous by a link to the Marathon attack have responded much like the rest of the region — which is to say, with compassion. They have raised money for the One Fund. Two students will be on a team running the Marathon in memory of Krystle Campbell, one of the victims. A prayer quilt headed to Boston in time for the race was delivered onto the campus last week, and students and administrators signed it and wrote messages.
At UMass Dartmouth, as elsewhere, this week will be a time to look inward. “I’ve been reflective lately because of this,” Grossman said. “One of the things I’ve thought about is that we really have to treasure the time we have here. We have to lead lives of purpose.”