Homeland Security warns colleges, universities on potential for more threats

As investigations continue into bomb threats at HBCUs, the DHS is urging institutions to be wary of possible violent acts.

On the heels of the bomb threats made to Historically Black Colleges and Universities last week, the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin warning of the threat of continued extreme violence at many of the nation’s “soft targets” including institutions of higher education and faith-based buildings.

DHS said that the landscape has remained volatile over the past year, but a combination of misinformation and conspiracy theories along with calls for violence from domestic and foreign bad actors has heightened risk.

“Mass casualty attacks and other acts of targeted violence conducted by lone offenders and small groups acting in furtherance of ideological beliefs and/or personal grievances pose an ongoing threat to the nation,” DHS officials wrote in the summary, which will remain in effect until June 7. “Threats directed at HBCUs and other colleges and universities, Jewish facilities and churches cause concern and may inspire extremist threat actors to mobilize.”

Two false narratives – mitigation efforts around COVID-19 and Donald Trump’s presidential election loss to Joe Biden – are being pushed to the public to “sow discord”, especially online, and inspire roque individuals to act. DHS said extremists are lashing out at many groups, including racial and ethnic minorities and law enforcement.

More than two dozen HBCUs have been the target of bomb threats since Jan 5, the day before the anniversary of the Insurrection on the U.S. Capitol. Some also were hit with menacing warnings to start Black History Month. The latest came Tuesday at Spelman College, which was its third to start the year, and students were asked to shelter-in-place as the campus was swept and cleared.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal reported last week that Bethune-Cookman University received a call from a neo-Nazi organization stating that several duffel bags with bombs had been positioned around the perimeter of the university and that there would be a mass shooting on Jan. 31. No bombs were found during a sweep of campus. The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are continuing to investigate all threats and say they have identified five persons of interest. The HBCU Black Caucus expects that those who are caught will be prosecuted.

“Unfortunately, these terrorist acts fall squarely into a recent trendline documented by the Center for Strategic and International Studies that reflects a sharp increase in right-wing extremist attacks and plots in the United States in recent years,” said Dr. Michael Lomax, President and CEO of the United Negro College Fund and Dr. Harry Williams, President and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, in a joint statement. “Our universities’ missions and their historic legacies naturally put them at odds with the enemies of equality which, even in the 21st century, makes our institutions and their students, staff, faculty and administrators an apparent target for extremism. Notwithstanding these attempts to terrorize our community, our HBCUs remain unbroken and unbowed.”

In addition to Bethune-Cookman, threats have been levied at these institutions over the past two months: Albany State University, Alcorn State University, Arkansas Baptist College, Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Delaware State University, Edward Waters University, Florida Memorial University, Fort Valley State University, Jackson State University, Kentucky State University, Morgan State University, Mississippi Valley State University, Norfolk State University, North Carolina Central University, Philander Smith College, Prairie View A&M University, Rust College, Shorter College, Spelman College, Southern University, Tougaloo College, University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the University of the District of Columbia and Xavier University in Louisiana.

The bomb threats to HBCUs have been denounced by political and higher education leaders across the country. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called out the actions, saying “threats of violence will not be tolerated, period” and conducted a meeting with at least three dozen HBCU leaders to discuss their security measures. Most HBCUs have managed to hold classes and events, though Howard University did report that it canceled classes on the day it received the call earlier this month.

“While the bomb threats have so far not proven credible, they nonetheless disrupt campus life; spread fear and anxiety among students, faculty, and staff; and strain campus and community resources,” the American Association of Colleges and Universities said in a statement. “The AAC&U condemns in the strongest possible terms these attempts to terrorize our students, and we support our HBCU colleagues.”

HBCUs aren’t the only institutions potentially under attack. DHS warned that a college or university’s position on COVID-19 vaccines and masks could “inspire extremists to target academic institutions that they associate with those measures.” And yet, the lifting of COVID restrictions that allow for further gatherings also may afford those actors the chance to seize on targets without warning. DHS has a number of resources available to assist in safely holding public gatherings. They say it is important to prep for potential active shooter incidents and have a well-thought-out plan to deal with situations where explosives might be set off. It also stressed to look for warning signs and to seek help for those who might be struggling with mental health.

DHS notes one concern over the next few months that should be monitored closely by institutions are midterm elections. Dylan Sellers, National HBCU Manager at the Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project, said: “Throughout history, Black Americans—particularly students at HBCUs—have always been at the forefront of our nation’s fight for civil rights and voting rights. These threats cannot, and will not, cause today’s young Black Americans to waver in their dedication to advancing social justice nationwide. Every student deserves to learn without the threat of racist violence.”

Tiffani Perry, chief of staff at Rust College in Mississippi told the Tennessean, “we will remain strong and steadfast as we always do in the face of adversity.”

Lomax and Williams echoed that sentiment. “The actions of a misguided few will not deter our institutions from fulfilling their collective mission to educate our nation’s next generation of teachers, entrepreneurs and leaders. We are hopeful that congressional, state, community and philanthropic leaders will join with us and offer the support that is needed for us to offer our students the sense of security needed as we move forward.”

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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