Harvard bomb hoax: Are more students stuggling to cope with stress?

The suspect in a Harvard bomb hoax said he wanted to avoid an exam, according to an affidavit. Some experts say academic stress is rising and student are less able to cope with it.

Josh Reynolds/AP
A police officer holds tape to keep people out from an area at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Monday. The bomb threat was a hoax, with the suspect, a Harvard student, now released on a $100,000 bond.

Harvard student Eldo Kim, who prosecutors claim is behind the bomb threats that disrupted Harvard exams Monday morning, was released to his sister and uncle on a $100,000 bond Wednesday with the stipulation that he must stay away from the university.

Four buildings on the campus in Cambridge, Mass., had to be evacuated because of the threats, sent via e-mail to the Harvard Crimson newspaper president, Harvard Police, and two other Harvard officials, the complaint says. Thorough sweeps of the buildings turned up no explosives.

An affidavit by an FBI agent states that Mr. Kim admitted to sending the e-mails because he wanted to avoid an exam. He went to Emerson Hall, one of the threatened buildings, Monday morning just before his exam was scheduled to take place, and evacuated with the other students, the affidavit says.

Unless more-serious mental health issues emerge, “this may be indicative of how very, very intelligent people are making very foolish choices” in society in general, says Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles. “In this case it was a false alarm. In another case it could be a banking executive who decides to cover up an error. It’s all cut from the same cloth – when you’re not fundamentally committed to playing by the rules, to integrity, to an idea of transparency.… Whenever you engage in conduct where the only way it works is if nobody finds out, already it’s dangerous and foolish.”

Alexander Ryjik, a junior from Alexandria, Va., was about to take a politics final in Emerson Hall when alarms went off. He recognized Kim from the class and said he was not surprised that authorities believe a student is responsible.

“At Harvard especially, people are scared to fail or do poorly, even a B,” he said. “It just kind of reflects just how high-stress it is here. If it is true that a student sent a bomb threat to prevent himself from taking a final, I think it's sad that somebody would have to go to that length.”

Kim was born in South Korea but renounced Korean citizenship to become a naturalized American citizen in fifth grade. The Harvard Crimson reports that he attended Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, Wash. The Crimson also quotes a student who is a friend of Kim’s and requested anonymity: He was a “great kid,” the student said. “I wouldn’t have expected [this].” Kim “probably studied a lot” for his exam on Monday, the student said, but may have gone into “panic mode.… He did have a stressful semester.”

Stress is the top factor affecting the academic performance of college students around the country – with 28.5 percent saying it has negatively impacted grades, influenced them to drop out of a course, or significantly disrupted thesis and project work, according to the National Health Assessment Survey last spring. However, calling in a bomb threat to a college is a rare occurrence, and not enough is known about Kim to assess what mental health issues he may have been facing, writes president-elect of the American College Counseling Association Tamara Grosz in an e-mail to the Monitor.

Others suggest that today's students are becoming less adept at coping with the stress of elite-level academics. 

"You frequently hear those who work in higher education talk about the perception that students are coming to campus with fewer coping resources. You couple the fewer coping resources with the increased pressures and expectations that are placed on students, and it's not all that surprising that the occasional student resorts to some form of extreme measure such as this," adds Josh Gunn, president of the American Counseling Association.

Just over a year ago, about 70 Harvard students were suspended for the school year for cheating on a take-home exam for a large course by discussing it with fellow students.

Kim is accused of using a service that disguises the source of e-mails. Harvard officials found that he had accessed a service that provides anonymous Internet Protocol (IP) addresses via the university’s wireless network in the hours before the threats were issued, the affidavit says.

The maximum penalties under the bomb hoax statute are five years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine.

Material from Associated Press was used in this report.

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