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August 17, 2017

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan listens during a news conference concerning the white nationalist rally and violence in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Last weekend's tragic violence sparked by white supremacists on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville highlights how unprepared colleges are to handle the threat of political violence.

Colleges in the Boston area are preparing for protests this weekend and this fall, rethinking how to respond if violent groups descend on campus.

When hundreds of white supremacists marched across the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville last Friday, carrying lit torches and shouting anti-Semitic and racist chants, UVA administrators were caught off-guard. They didn't expect the march to turn into a violent mob, even though earlier this month the university's president Teresa Sullivan did tell students not to go to the rally.

Now, campus security experts say colleges should rethink how they might prevent demonstrations from leading to the kind of violence seen in Charlottesville while also protecting free speech.

"Colleges and universities see that as a critical part of their educational missions," said Constance Neary, vice president for risk management at the insurance firm United Educators. The firm, based in Bethesda, Maryland, represents more than 900 colleges and universities across the country. Right now, many of them are seeking advice.

"Something happened at University of Virginia that heretofore might have been unimaginable,” said Neary. “Now it's knowable, and so now every other educational institution has an opportunity to prepare."

Neary is advising colleges to prepare for the worst and to develop a response plan now, rather than in the heat of the moment.

"Given that we're seeing extreme groups actually target higher education, this is the time that you actually have to assume protests will come to your campus," Neary said.

Neary has also urged schools to review their policies surrounding outside groups using their space.

And schools are responding.

Earlier this week, Texas A&M canceled a "White Lives Matter" protest featuring white supremacist leader Richard Spencer. On Wednesday, the University of Florida denied a request by Spencer's organization to rent space on campus, citing safety concerns.

At Emerson College, which borders Boston Common where a so-called "free speech" rally is scheduled for Saturday, President Lee Pelton tells WGBH News the college is working closely with the Boston Police Department and is considering shutting down certain buildings during the rally.

"Emerson has been visited twice by these organizations," Pelton said.

In December, shortly after the election, the white nationalist group Vanguard America, which was involved in the Charlottesville rally, posted recruitment fliers in academic buildings and dorms on the Emerson campus.

Then, in March, hundreds of faculty and students received an email with the subject line "Help President Trump Stop White Genocide."

Related: White Supremacists Trying To Recruit On College Campuses

Pelton says Vanguard America and other white supremacist groups recognize college campuses as fertile grounds to intimidate and incite discord.

"They see an essential conflict between our expressed diversity values and our expressed freedom of speech values,” Pelton said. “They see this as a weakness in colleges and universities that can be exploited.”

And Pelton says the violence in Charlottesville last weekend has changed the landscape, in large part, “because [white supremacists] feel that they have a mandate from the White House to carry out these activities."

Emerson and other colleges expect these violent protests to become more frequent and bolder, but Pelton says it's naive to ask students not to counter-protest.

Meanwhile, The Southern Poverty Law Center is advising student protesters to avoid confrontation, and instead organize a joyful protest away from any white supremacist events.

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higher ed, increasing access and success, free speech, diversity, university of virginia, Emerson

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