The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bomb threats damage us, even when nothing explodes

The campus of Morgan State University in Baltimore. As historically Black colleges and universities thrive, they facing some challenges they did decades ago, including bomb threats. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

“ALL CLEAR,” the police said, more than a dozen times, after a bomb threat was called into one of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities.

Whew? Not really. So far, no explosives were found on any of those campuses. But that doesn’t mean there was no damage. Our imperfect nation stumbles and scars even more when we let our kids get dragged back into the ugliest days of our country’s soul.

Bomb threats remind us of the deadly Birmingham church bombing of 1963, of the angry White students trying to keep Black students out of schools, of campus violence that haunts us today.

A bomb threat, in 2022, caught Marian Turner, a junior at Spelman College in Atlanta, off-guard when I hit her school last month. She didn’t expect to relive what her grandparents experienced. “Black people are still facing discrimination and acts of violence,” Turner said. “The same way our ancestors faced during the civil rights movement and prior.”

HBCU bomb threats across the nation investigated as hate crimes

All the HBCUs that evoke pride and history and progress with just one word — Howard, Spelman, Xavier — got the calls. So did scores of others with lesser known names across the country, from Alcorn State University in Mississippi to Bowie State University in Maryland.

The faux bombers knew exactly what they were doing.

Though prominent schools such as Howard University in D.C. began getting the calls in January — there have been at least three so far in 2022 — most of the calls flooded the schools at the start of Black History Month this February. These campuses were created as safe spaces for African American students to learn and achieve with freedom and without fear. No coincidence that the timing of the bomb threats come this month, as parts of White America resist learning the full story of Black America.

“Like many HBCU students I, myself, view our campuses as safe spaces for achieving excellence and being your pure, authentic selves,” Mikayla Sharrieff, a D.C. native and Spelman student, told Capital B News. “I wanted to be surrounded with people who look like me who also want to make an impact on the world.”

Putting the motivations into sharper focus and throwing the scenario even father back in time are the suspects in Florida.

“This group from what we can tell, it is a neo-Nazi organization going by the name of Atomwaffen,” Daytona Beach Police Chief Jakari Young said at a news conference.

The caller told Bethune-Cookman University that there was a bomb on campus and a gunman would open fire at lunchtime.

“These threats are being investigated as racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism and hate crimes,” the FBI statement on the investigation said.

The threats rattled students, who woke up to shelter-in-place warnings, bomb-sniffing dogs and campus sweeps.

Some decided to stay in their dorm rooms and attend classes virtually. Others defiantly went outside, determined not to be silenced. Howard University canceled classes last Friday not because of threats to safety, but because of the toll the threats have taken on the community’s mental health.

“Recent events, from the persistence of the covid-19 pandemic to the multiple bomb threats issued against our institution, have taken a toll on all members of our community,” Howard president Wayne A.I. Frederick said in an email to the community.

This is the damage being done today. Rather than rip through bodies and buildings, the faux bombers are tearing at the security and safety of a community fabric.

When a handful of predominantly Black schools in Washington got bomb threats this week — the day after one came into Dunbar High School while Vice President Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, was visiting students — the immediate fear was that these were racially motivated. And a terrified city responded on social media.

“May God be with all of us!”

“What? Again? Keep the kids and teachers safe!”

“This has to stop.”

Police have arrested a 16-year-old from Southeast D.C. for the calls. No Atomwaffen involved. Seems as though it was one of those old-fashioned, pull the fire drill to get out of school thing a kid did for his friends.

“I’ve always subscribed to the theory that bombers bomb and threateners threaten,” said Robert Mueck, director of public safety at St. John’s College in Maryland and a member of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators’ Domestic Preparedness Committee, told The Washington Post. Calling in a bomb threat is “more of a nuisance crime,” he said, “like back in high school, kids pulling a fire alarm to get out of an exam.”

That doesn’t fly today. No matter what kind of situation a kid is in. That prank is gone forever in America. Because the “all clear” never means the physical threat of violence is over as the pervasive rot of racism continues to fester in our society.

Many of our kids know what a school lockdown is too early on

On most Black campuses, these threats have too much history behind them to be dismissed as nuisance calls. And current events show us hate crimes aren’t in our past.

On all our nation’s campuses, violence is not impossible. The unique American tradition and the bloody bodies left in its wake shows that school violence is possible, probable, even.

My son texted me from his private Jesuit school in D.C. as I was writing this. The boys were huddled in the music room’s vault during an active-shooter drill. When they were little, the repeated drills and banging on doors and reminders to stay silent made them cry. Today, they all did the Wordle puzzle.

For El’Jhon Ward, a junior at Bowie State who got the email giving a “shelter-in-place” order after a bomb threat last month, it felt all too familiar.

“I didn’t really know what that means because I’ve never sheltered in place in college before,” he told WBAL-TV. “But it kind of took us back to high school.”

Ah, the memories?

As the threat of last century’s racial violence revisits them, today’s generation, living in an era of active shooter drills, may never be “all clear.”