The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fear, anxiety follow third wave of bomb threats targeting HBCUs

People walk on Feb. 1 on the campus of Howard University in Washington, one of a string of historically Black colleges and universities to receive bomb threats in the past month. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

For the third time in just a month, Howard University warned its campus on Tuesday of a bomb threat. Each time, a law enforcement search found no sign of the threatened explosives.

But as students spilled out of academic buildings and headed to their next classes, or lined up for burritos at a nearby Chipotle, the campus was still on edge.

“Most of us are feeling anxiety,” said Troix McClendon, a 19-year-old freshman. “There’s not really a lot of information.”

The bomb threats at Howard are part of a wave to hit historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) this year. On Jan. 4, at least eight HBCUs were threatened. On Monday, at least six were.

Tuesday’s threats, most coming early in the morning on the first day of Black History Month, broadened and deepened the sense of unease: At least 16 universities closed or swept their campuses. In all, more than two dozen have faced similar threats this year.

No bombs were found, and law enforcement agencies did not identify possible motives. But the threats weigh heavily on many, particularly given the emotional attachment and deep loyalty many students, faculty, staff and alumni feel for the campuses — a haven, a calling, a family.

“February 1st, it’s a moment when we usually celebrate the innovation and the resilience of our people, and now to be faced with an issue of this kind at our HBCUs nationwide, we want our community to know that we’re standing together,” said Tashni-Ann Dubroy, Howard’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

The university in the District has increased the police presence on campus, reminded students of the safety resources on campus and offered support, Dubroy said.

The FBI has said it is working with law enforcement partners to address potential threats, according to the agency, and it asked the public to report anything suspicious to law enforcement immediately.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also is aware of bomb threats received by some HBCUs, Carolyn Gwathmey, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in a written statement. “We take all potential threats seriously and we regularly work with our law enforcement partners to determine the threat credibility.”

She said it could not comment on the specific details at this time because it is a fluid situation with ongoing investigations.

The threats in the past month have touched some of the country’s most iconic schools, such as Howard and Spelman College, as well as regional institutions all across the country, triggering cancellations, lockdowns and fear.

On Tuesday, the schools targeted included: Rust College, Tougaloo College, Jackson State University and Alcorn State University in Mississippi, as well as Mississippi Valley State University; Fort Valley State University and Spelman College in Georgia; Morgan State University and Coppin State University in Maryland; Harris-Stowe State University in Missouri; Kentucky State University; Xavier University of Louisiana; Philander Smith College in Arkansas; Edward Waters University in Florida; Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia.

“We stand in solidarity with our historically Black institutions,” Jay A. Perman, chancellor of the University System of Maryland — which includes Coppin State and Bowie State, another school targeted by a threat this week — said Tuesday in a written statement.

He added: “Knowing that their strength is our strength, and that their power — on display like never before — will not be diminished by cowardly acts meant to menace and harm and intimidate. If the intent of these threats was to restrict access to our historically Black institutions — to restrict access to higher education itself — it will fail. If it was meant to sow division, it will fail. If it was meant to terrorize students and communities of color, it will fail.”

At the University of the District of Columbia on Tuesday, officials cleared a threat placed about 3:20 a.m. and opened the campus.

Xavier University of Louisiana evacuated the area of the threat and issued a shelter-in-place order for students living on campus, according to Patrice Bell, the school’s vice president and chief of staff, until it was cleared to reopen by law-enforcement officials.

Tougaloo College, one of several HBCUs threatened Tuesday in Mississippi, received a call about 4:20 a.m. that brought FBI and other law enforcement to sweep campuses. Even after the threat was found to be unsubstantiated, the campus remained in virtual mode for students, faculty and staff on Tuesday, with college officials pledging to remain vigilant. Mississippi Valley State University locked down after a threat was received through its guardhouse.

Philander Smith College, in Arkansas, lifted its lockdown and resumed classes and operations at noon Tuesday. Kentucky State University issued an all-clear Tuesday and planned to resume normal operations and classes Wednesday.

Morgan State University was also targeted. Leaders received the threat around 4:50 a.m. and issued a shelter-in-place order. Classes went virtual and employees were told to work from home.

“My main concern is my students’ mental health. As college students, we already have so much mentally to deal with,” said Jamera Forbes, a senior at Morgan State and student body president. “We’ve tried to push through and overcome so much with covid over the years, and we’re just trying to get back to a norm.”

At Howard, freshman Jalen McKinney, 18, said the threats are making him worried, but some on campus seem less concerned.

“People are kind of brushing it off because it didn’t happen,” McKinney said. D.C. and university police performed a sweep after the threat was made about 2:55 a.m. “But at the same time, it could happen.”

An expert in campus security was reassuring about the potential danger.

“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 and a member of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators’ Domestic Preparedness Committee. 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.”

Of course, he said, officials cannot ignore it — they must ensure there is no explosive.

But Mueck cautioned against overreactions by college officials, because the warnings, building closures and lockdowns are disruptive and alarming.

These particular threats are troubling, though, he said, because they appear to be targeting HBCUs, and might be motivated by bias. The menace is there: “It’s almost like reaching out and saying, ‘We can get you,’” he said.

While law enforcement have not identified suspects or named their motives, the recent threats evoked the long history of intimidation and violence against Black schools, said Greg E. Carr, chair of Howard’s Afro-American studies department and associate professor of Africana studies.

“There is this deep-seated racial insecurity that has historically come from segments of White populations that feel that somehow the self-improvement of Black folks will cost them something, either in prestige or social position,” Carr said. “Whether any of these threats would manifest into anything tangible or not, it’s just the idea that ‘Ya’ll are a little too big for your britches.’”

As officials continue to monitor the situation, students and faculty are hoping to get back to business.

“Our response has been, historically, to simply redouble our efforts,” Carr said. “The intimidation never works.”

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