OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — A UNO professor goes to Western Nebraska to preach kindness and ends up feeling unwelcome and unsafe.
Dr. Ferial Pearson has given her speech on 'secret kindness agents' dozens of times.
She tells kids: one simple act of kindness could change somebody's life.
But before she was set to speak in the Sand Hills, some people spoke up online, worried what she might say. They mentioned her Muslim religion.
She says when she first arrived in Mullen, things seemed okay. Teachers and staff treated her well. She talked it up with the owner of the only diner in town.
Pearson felt good about her talks with students the next day. Then her friends sent her some Facebook posts.
"I remember my mouth kind of went dry and I thought, woah, what is happening,” says Pearson, a teacher education professor at UNO.
It started with a couple of posts from a resident in town, she was worried that Pearson's Muslim religion would rub off onto the kids.
"My presentation is about kindness, I don't even put Muslim in my bio,” says Pearson.
Then she read the comments. Mentions of brainwashing the kids, pulling kids out of class for the day, calling her message evil before even hearing it.
But it was one particular comment that had her worried.
"One of them suggested go be Chris Kyle, go be a cowboy like Chris Kyle,” says Pearson.
She says her cousin was attacked in New York after American Sniper, based on the life of Chris Kyle, played in theaters.
She took the post to mean somebody could show up to the school and kill her because of her religion.
"That's when I got really scared and that's when I got physically ill and thought, I can't go there tomorrow because I don't feel safe now.”
"I also know in this day and age when people are living in kind of isolated bubbles where they never met somebody who's different, that dangerous rhetoric can be perpetuated,” says Pearson.
She said she had a panic attack and didn't sleep, and Mullen Superintendent Chris Kuncl told her in the early morning she didn’t have to give the talk if she felt unsafe.
“If the superintendent understands that I'm too scared to speak and he lives here, then that's you know, further validating this fear that I have,” says Pearson.
But he also said he wanted her to give the talk. He said the kids need to hear her message. So she decided to go to the school and give the talk she's given dozens of times before.
This time, she says she was shaking and in tears.
"If they're ever going to meet one Muslim it might as well be me,” says Pearson.
It turns out, the kids liked the talk, a lot.
"I get a lot of energy from the audience and the students were so receptive, they were smiling and laughing and nodding and really, they were engaged,” says Pearson.
Pearson says after the talks with the kids, she got hugs, dozens of positive messages online and says that one student has even been Snapchatting the acts of kindness he's performed since she gave the talk.
“I was so proud of him," says Pearson.
In a phone call Wednesday with Hooker County Sheriff Wynn Wiens, he said he was at the talk, and that she was never in any danger.
He says the man who made the Chris Kyle post doesn't live in the state.
"In no was Mullen ever unfriendly, or unwelcoming to this lady. We had a few people that just had a bad opinion of the whole deal to begin with, but they were never threatening or violent,” says Wiens.
Sheriff Wiens says he feels like his conservative community has a black eye since the incident. The school has even upped security. But he says the community is full of good people.
"Same people that might criticize her, if she had a flat tire on the side of the road, they'd stop and change her tire for her,” says Wiens.