(Getty Images photo)
By Laura Cassels
More than 20 FBI field offices around the nation are investigating a series of bomb threats characterized as “hate crimes” against Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and unidentified “houses of worship” but have found no explosives at the sites, the agency announced Wednesday.
The statement did not say whether the threatened houses of worship, like the HBCUs, are predominantly Black.
“These threats are being investigated as racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism and hate crimes,” the FBI announced Wednesday from Washington, D.C. “Although at this time no explosive devices have been found at any of the locations, the FBI takes all threats with the utmost seriousness, and we are committed to thoroughly and aggressively investigating these threats.”
On Wednesday, NBC News reported an FBI official had identified six “tech-savvy” students as persons of interest in the investigation.
The announcement comes the day after multiple campuses around the nation were targeted with bomb threats on Monday and Tuesday. It was the latest in a string of incidents after an initial report of threats Jan. 5.
The campuses impacted this week include Howard University, in Washington, D.C.; Spelman College, Fort Valley State University, and Albany State University, all in Georgia; Bethune-Cookman University and Edward Waters University, both in Florida; Xavier University and Southern University and A&M College, both in Louisiana; Morgan State University and Coppin State University in Maryland; Harris-Stowe State University in Missouri; Philander Smith College and Arkansas Baptist College, both in Arkansas; Kentucky State University; and five HBCUs in Mississippi, according to news reports and postings by the educational institutions.
Pennsylvania is home to two historically Black institutions. Cheyney University is the nation’s oldest HBCU. Lincoln University, a state-related university, is the nation’s first degree-granting HBCU.
Prominent figures including U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and chair of the House Homeland Security Committee and U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, both Georgia Democrats, condemned the threats.
“Over the last 48 hours, I have communicated with the presidents of Georgia’s HBCUs, as well as leadership at the GBI [Georgia Bureau of Investigation], to ensure my office is fully supporting local, state and federal efforts to protect these institutions,” Ossoff said in a statement released Wednesday. “I will work to ensure the U.S. Department of Justice is fully engaged in the investigation of these terrorist threats.”
Warnock, who graduated from Morehouse, tweeted Tuesday: “Deeply upsetting that as we begin Black History Month, more HBCUs in Georgia and across the country received bomb threats today. I’m actively monitoring this situation and working with federal law enforcement agencies to address these potential dangers facing our HBCUs.”
Warnock, who is Black, and Ossof, who is Jewish, upset Republican incumbents in special elections on Jan. 4, 2021, resulting in Democrats narrowly taking control of the U.S. Senate.
Stacey Abrams, who is running for Georgia governor and an HBCU alum, tweeted: “Beacons of heavenly light, undaunted by the fight.’ My thoughts are with the students, staff and faculty of my alma mater Spelman College and w/Albany State + every #HBCU targeted in GA or around the nation. Our students should not have to learn in fear.”
Most of the colleges and universities announced precautionary lockdowns when the threats were made but were open again Wednesday after investigators and bomb-sniffing dogs said the campuses were safe, according to local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies.
Southern University at Baton Rouge was among the campuses that extended emotional support to rattled students, staff and parents following the “heinous” acts of intimidation.
“To the SUBR Community: Our campus community, like other HBCUs, has been the target of a heinous bomb threat. Know that any heightened anxiety and hypervigilance is normal and that your University Counseling Center is here to help you through it,” the university tweeted.
Florida A&M University in Tallahassee also posted messages of support.
“Our hearts go out to our fellow #HBCUs that have received bomb threats today. #HBCUs were created to be a safe space for minorities in a country that didn’t think we deserved an education. We are saddened by the threats to bomb or ruin this safe haven,” FAMU tweeted.
Thompson, who also chairs the U.S. House special committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the nation’s Capitol, suggested Tuesday that the threats against the Black educational facilities are part of “the dynamic terrorism threat landscape” that has emerged in the United States. The Homeland Security Committee hosted a virtual hearing on the subject Wednesday morning.
“The spate of bomb threats against Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in recent days is incredibly disturbing and disheartening. It is not lost on me that these threats are targeting African American educational institutions at a time when we are observing Black History Month,” Thompson said in a statement issued Tuesday.
“Moreover, this rash of threats against HBCUs puts further strain on campuses and communities that were already under great stress, as they try to operate safely during the pandemic,” Thompson stated. He pledged to ensure that federal agencies investigate the threats and provide HBCU leaders with “the answers they deserve.”
Sonel Shropshire, president of the National Association of HBCU Students and Alumni, based in Lancaster, California, told the Phoenix that disruption and intimidation are likely the goals of the parties who made the threats but apparently did not set bombs.
“Anything that prohibits access [to the HBCUs] inhibits advancement and development,” Shropshire said, adding that the disruptions in these cases fortunately were minimized. “As far as I know, all of them have reopened.”
Laura Cassels is a reporter for the Florida Phoenix, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared. Capital-Star Editor John L. Micek contributed additional reporting.
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