By Chanel Cain and Donovan J. Thomas
The Bison Safe app jarred the Howard University community awake at 4:35 a.m. Tuesday, the start of Black History Month and the second day in a row that several HBCUs across the country received bomb threats.
Nearly two dozen HBCUs, including Howard, Morgan State University, Xavier University of Louisiana, Spelman College and Kentucky State University, have been working with both local law enforcement and the FBI to investigate the threats.
Threats against Howard began at 4:35 a.m. Monday. The university notified students an hour later with a shelter-in-place order via email and its Bison Safe app. The Metropolitan Police Department gave an all-clear at 6 a.m.
However, some students were still reluctant to attend classes on campus. Nachelle Moore, a senior criminology major, had not checked her school email yet, when a former coworker reached out to her on Tuesday morning.
“I actually first heard about it through my old supervisor,” Moore said “She sent me a text like, ‘Hey, are you okay?’ So I was just like, ‘I’m just gonna stay in today.’”
In a statement emailed later that day, Executive Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police Marcus Lyles attempted to reassure the campus that the necessary steps were being taken.
“Make no mistake,” Lyles said. “We have remained on alert on campus since the very first threat and have not stopped our work of assessment and scaled surveillance for suspicious activity, in partnership with local and federal law enforcement.”
The university took the same steps for a second threat at 2:55 a.m. Tuesday. The shelter-in-place order was lifted again near 6 a.m. Operations continued as normal for the day.
Following the all-clear, President Wayne A.I. Frederick urged everyone to stand strong against the threats.
“As we mark the beginning of Black History Month, we must remember what the Black community has endured, overcome and achieved despite the threats against us and the hate we have received,” Frederick said in an email sent to the university community.
“Now is the time for us to embody the resilience and persistence of our ancestors. We must move forward with our missions, undaunted by the threats of bad actors and strengthened by the examples of excellence set by those who came before us.”
While many followed Frederick’s call, some students still have reservations about moving forward as normal, including freshman theater arts major Parris Brown.
“I got a call from my family,” Brown said. “They were like ‘Are you guys locked down? What’s happening?’ I’m like, ‘Oh, we’re just going to class – like this isn’t an issue.”
In a town hall hosted by the university on Tuesday evening, Lyles clarified that threats made against the university did not include any of the residence halls, though as a precaution they were thoroughly swept.
The FBI is leading the investigation into the threats made to Howard and other HBCUs, Lyles said.
In a statement given to the Howard University News Service, the FBI explained its involvement in the investigation.
“The FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces are leading the investigation into the nationwide series of bomb threats to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and houses of worship,” the agency said. “This investigation is of the highest priority for the bureau and involves more than 20 FBI field offices across the country. These threats are being investigated as Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism and hate crimes.”
According to an email sent out by the Howard University Department of Public Safety on Wednesday evening, “six ‘tech-savvy’ juveniles from across the country” have been identified as persons of interest. While no arrests have been made, the motivation behind these threats appears to be racist in nature. The investigation is still ongoing.
While security on campus was increased, graduate student Imani Bryant believed more needs to be done to ensure the safety of the community.
“Racism has not gone away and HBCUs represent a physical space that racists can attack,” Bryant said. “We are the alma mater of the vice president of the United States, and bombings are a traditional way in which white supremacist and racist have attacked Black communities.”
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Joyce Beatty and HBCU Caucus Founder and Co-Chair Alma Adams released a joint statement on Tuesday condemning the continued bomb threats against HBCUs, which began earlier this year on Jan. 5.
“The continued bomb threats against HBCUs are hate crimes that must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” they said. “This third round of bomb threats on Historically Black College and University campuses demands a swift response from federal and state law enforcement agencies.”
The nature of the incidents draws similarities to threats made in the fall against Ivy League schools.
Cornell, Columbia and Brown universities received bomb threats on Nov. 7 via phone call. The schools evacuated their campuses and issued an alert to students, instructing them to stay away from campus. According to The Boston Globe, a 14-year old gamer from Virginia was involved in the bomb threats.
During Howard’s town hall, several students and parents asked questions about the decision to not evacuate or close operations for the day.
Chief Operating Officer Tashni-Ann Dubroy responded that shelter-in-place orders made the most sense to allow for the campus to be swept, because of the timing of the threats. Both threats were made in the early hours of the morning,
Counseling services will be available to students in all residence halls to help manage the stress and anxiety of the last two days, according to Vice President for Student Affairs Cynthia Evers.
The string of threats is a major concern not only for those who attend HBCUs, but also for alumni, the families of students and others connected to these institutions.
In another statement from President Frederick on Wednesday evening, he announced that the university will close on Friday for a mental health day. He acknowledged the mental strain these events have put on the Howard community on top of the normal stressors everyone is facing.
“We can do more good for the world when we feel good ourselves,” Frederick said. “Strengthening our communities and enhancing our society begins with preserving the health and vitality of our minds and bodies.”
Chanel Cain and Donovan Thomas are reporters and regional bureau chiefs for HUNewsService.com. Additional reporting by Tanyia Foster, Ryan Thomas and Courtney Williams.
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