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Most threats against HBCUs this year linked to one minor, FBI says

Officials said the person, linked to menacing messages about 50 institutions, is now under government monitoring and restrictions to prevent further threats

Howard University in the nation's capital is among the dozens of HBCUs that have received threats this year. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

One minor was allegedly responsible for dozens of racist threats made against historically Black colleges and universities earlier this year, a senior FBI official said Monday of an investigation that has stretched for months. Officials said the minor is now under government monitoring and restrictions to prevent further threats.

The senior FBI official said that in January and February, this person threatened 50 institutions across the country. While investigators found no evidence of bombs or shooters, the rash of bomb threats at historically Black colleges and universities was the source of considerable consternation among school leaders, students and congressional lawmakers. The suspect allegedly said that bombs had been planted at the institutions and that active shooters would be present on campuses.

The FBI held a conference call Monday with journalists — including student reporters from HBCUs — about the threats and how federal law enforcement agencies have worked to stop them. The FBI said many of the senior law enforcement officials on the call spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be named.

On Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month, 18 schools were bombarded with menacing calls, leading them to close or sweep their campuses. Shortly after, the Biden administration said it was investigating the threats as a hate crime. It said HBCUs that have faced bomb threats would be eligible for Education Department grants of up to $150,000 for security upgrades, mental health support and other safety needs.

Amid nationwide enrollment drops, some HBCUs are growing. So are threats.

The messages led to a sprawling investigation across the country, which included more than half of the FBI’s 56 field offices. The senior FBI official said investigators initially thought that several minors were behind the threats but that they ultimately determined it was one alleged actor. Because the suspect is a minor, the FBI official did not reveal any details about the suspect’s identity or location.

Hate crimes are federal ones, and the federal government does not typically charge minors. In this case, the suspect was charged in a state court with leveling a threat unrelated to the ones made against HBCUs. The official said this charge allowed law enforcement to enact necessary restrictions and monitoring of the suspect’s activity.

The FBI said investigators also are looking into two other clusters of threats lodged against HBCUs and other institutions. A senior official at the FBI said the law enforcement agency has received an “alarming amount” of bombing and active shooter messages targeting community institutions such as schools. In February and March, the FBI identified racially motivated threats against 19 institutions in which the caller used different voices and accents and email addresses to make the threats. The senior official said investigators have linked those to a foreign internet address.

Separately, the FBI is investigating another batch of messages against more than 250 schools that authorities do not believe were racially motivated.

HBCUs are still receiving bomb threats, frustrating lawmakers and campus leaders

Paul Abbate, deputy director of the FBI, said on the call that threatening a religious or academic institution is among the most “serious and despicable acts” and that law enforcement has dedicated an “immense amount of resources” to solving these cases and holding people accountable.

“I promise you, we will continue to devote whatever is required and needed,” he said.

Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president for public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund, which advocates for HBCUs, said in an interview Monday that the FBI took too long to bring charges.

“We’re pleased that the FBI has brought someone to justice,” Murray said. “This does not make up for the terror that has been caused on our campuses and the impacts on our students’ operations, classes and most importantly mental health.”

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