Early Wednesday morning, parents and school administrators came across a tangle of heavy rope hanging from a chainlink fence at Chabot Elementary School in Oakland, Calif. It looked like a noose.

According to Oakland Unified School District spokesman John Sasaki, who spoke with the San Jose Mercury News, few people saw the rope before Chabot’s principal took it down. Sasaki even allowed that the rope could have been a coincidence—maybe a “casual dog leash,” or a bundle of rope “haphazardly” thrown onto the school’s fence.

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But for several parents who either saw the rope or images of it played on local television stations, it’s clear what the rope represents.

“It was a rope in the form of a noose, period,” parent Courtney Jones told KGO-TV. Jones has two children who attend Chabot.

“For me, it was triggering and hurtful—I felt nervous and scared,” she said.

In an email to parents regarding the incident, Chabot’s principal wrote, “the way it was placed could have been a coincidence but it also could have been indicative of something more disturbing—it was easy to see the rope as a message that harkens back to some of our nation’s darkest history.”

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If the rope was simply a casual accident (a pretty big assumption to make, to be sure), the dread and anxiety it has sparked still speaks to a wider climate of fear that’s gripped the country in recent years. While hateful, racist messaging isn’t new—a quick Google search will show just how often incidents involving nooses and simulated lynchings occur throughout the U.S.—reports of hate crimes have spiked all over the country in the last three years. Educational institutions have been especially vulnerable, and even “liberal enclaves” like Washington D.C. have observed record numbers of hate crimes. This is all the more astonishing when one considers, as many experts note, that the number of actual hate crimes exceeds the number of incidents reported.

In the East Bay, hate incidents spiked in 2017—with anti-black crimes comprising the single largest category. Whatever this specific incident turns out to be—an eerie “coincidence” or a hate crime—that pervasive dread, existing before but certainly amplified by a sitting U.S. president—will remain in Oakland, as it does throughout the country.

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The district says it’s now working with police, who are reviewing surveillance footage to help identify a suspect. The elementary school will also discuss the incident in a meeting next week with parents and staff, KGO-TV reports.