Can Congress and the FBI help stop the repeated bomb threats at HBCUs?

Saying 'fear is not an option in this nation,' a new House subcommittee and two federal crime prevention agencies are investigating acts of domestic hate and violence.

Just 48 hours after Valentine’s Day, Claflin University in South Carolina received a bomb threat that later was determined to be just that. However, the individual making the call succeeded in shutting down its campus for 24 hours, forced buildings to be evacuated and drove students to shelter in place in residence halls.

Claflin is one of more than two dozen Historically Black Colleges and Universities that has had to act swiftly to threats of violence since the anniversary of the Jan. 6 Insurrection. Despite the FBI announcing it was launching an investigation weeks ago, they haven’t stopped. Two more occurred this week at Winston-Salem State University and Fayetteville State University in North Carolina.

Though some institutions have had to shut down for a day, most have managed to keep in-person learning going. Howard University has done so through five threats in the past two months. Claflin was back in business the next day. “The same inexhaustible resilience that brought us through a global pandemic and previous challenges in our 153-year history persists today,” President Dr. Dwaun Warmack told the Claflin community. “We will continue to be steadfast and vigilant. We strongly encourage the campus community to remain aware of their surroundings.”

But the threats are getting exhausting for these transformative institutions. The manpower, the costs and the chilling effect it can have on students already suffering from the emotional ebbs and flows of the COVID-19 pandemic, from incidents like George Floyd’s murder, are taking their toll.

“For too many years, every ethnic group in the United States has been touched by the increase in domestic terrorism and hate crimes, many in the form of mass shootings,” said Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee (D-Texas), chair of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, who spoke Thursday during a three-hour hearing on the Rise in Violence Against Minority Institutions. “It’s everywhere. We’re opening the wounds of those who recall the threats, bombings, burnings and lynchings of the not-too-distant past. We have to take these threats very, very seriously. What is a threat today can become devastation tomorrow. We cannot allow this to continue. Fear cannot be an option in this nation.”

Facing fear head-on

The bipartisan subcommittee is one of the many groups trying to stem the rising tide of hate speech and hate crimes, which numbered more than 8,200 in 2020, according to FBI data. A cadre of House leaders, including Jackson Lee, forged legislation in 2021 called the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act that would both track and prosecute those who engage in these threats. A coalition of 64 organizations led by the American Council of Education also recently reached out to Congress asking for help.

“These crimes must be fully and aggressively investigated, and the offenders prosecuted in accordance with the grievous harm they have caused,” ACE President Ted Mitchell wrote to House and Senate leaders Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell. “We ask you to immediately pass H.Con.Res. 70 (which condemns violence against HBCUs). We request you hold Congressional hearings on an expedited basis, with a focus on the persistent issues underlying these crimes and how to prevent future occurrences.”

More from UB: Homeland Security warns colleges, universities of potential for more threats

The subcommittee’s work is the first step in the process. Many of the organizations with ties to higher education have signed on requesting immediate action, including the American Association of Colleges and Universities, the American Association of Community Colleges, the College Board, the Center for American Progress, EDUCAUSE, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, UNCF, the NCAA, the National Education Association and the State Higher Education Executive Officers association.

One campus deeply impacted by threats against race through the years and in a most recent bomb threat in the run-up to Black History Month is Morgan State University. Its president, David Wilson addressed the spate of hate and the effect it has had on him personally—he grew up on a sharecropping plantation in Alabama—his students and the Baltimore community.

“I have experienced firsthand this type of trauma and this type of racial violence,” he said. “This is why I have devoted my entire career to providing educational leadership to campuses, to enable them to nurture the intellect of black students and not to stifle it. Our HBCUs are not some radical terror camps, which apparently is the distorted image domestic terrorists have. Our campuses are not places where students are taught to hate the country or to engage in activities to destroy the fabric of our democracy. Quite the contrary. HBCUs have always had their foundation as one that prepares, inspires, motivates and encourages our students to live out the American dream. All HBCUs are part and parcel of America. They’re a national treasure.”

Unfortunately, that is being challenged by those threats, which are not only shutting down campuses methodically and periodically but also are impacting students, who are fighting through a pandemic and the polarization occurring in their communities.

“The psychological impact that the continuation of these threats is having on our young minds cannot be understated,” Wilson said. “As President, I have to say to them, this is not us. This is not our country. I’m speaking in terms of Morgan, but it’s the same, whether it is at Prairie View or Howard or Morehouse or Spelman or North Carolina A&T. I hope that the committee will not take lightly the incredible psychological and emotional damage that these threats are perpetrating.”

The wide impact of the threats

In addition to those mentioned above, threats have hit scores of college campuses including: Albany State University, Alcorn State University, Arkansas Baptist College, Bethune-Cookman University, Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Delaware State University, Edward Waters University, Fisk University, Florida Memorial University, Fort Valley State University, Jackson State University, Kentucky State University, Mississippi Valley State University, Norfolk State University, North Carolina Central University, Philander Smith College, Rust College, Shorter College, Southern University, Tougaloo College, University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the University of the District of Columbia and Xavier University in Louisiana.

The Department of Homeland Security warned earlier this month of the potential of more serious attacks on some of the nation’s “soft targets” including colleges. Many groups are targeting racial or ethnic groups and those businesses and institutions that enact COVID-19 mandates. While the FBI and ATF are investigating these incidents, it has not released information since it sent a statement on Feb. 2 that said it would make the threat on HBCUs and religious institutions “the highest priority”, devoting 20 offices to the effort. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has been one of the many groups to pitch in to the effort, offering a number of resources to help, including checklists for bomb threat procedures to institutions.

Undeterred, HBCUs press on. As Mitchell noted earlier this month, “An attack on any of us is an attack on all of us. We must redouble our efforts to work as a higher education community and as a nation to defeat hatred and injustice once and for all.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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