Photo of the entrance to Xavier University of Louisiana.

After bomb threats against HBCUs across the country, students wonder why there’s not more urgency

NEW ORLEANS –Despite the all-clear from federal authorities and campus leadership, student anxiety has yet to settle down at several historically Black colleges and universities following a nationwide rash of bomb threats earlier this month. 

Nearly 20 HBCUs in five states and the District of Columbia received bomb threats since Feb. 1. In Louisiana, Xavier University of Louisiana, Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge were among campuses that received threats since the beginning of Black History Month. And again on Tuesday, students at Spelman College sheltered in their rooms after another bomb threat — its third this year. 

“These are acts of terrorism. The fact that they haven’t led to an explosion, thank God, does not change the fact that these are acts of terrorism,” Southern Poverty Law Center chief of staff Lecia Brooks said Tuesday during a roundtable with university leaders about the recent threats.

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“The timing of these threats to coincide with Black History Month was a likely attempt to exploit tensions among some factions of  our society,” added Michelle Cooper of the U.S. Department of Education, noting that the U.S. government will not tolerate these attacks which “attempt to divide the country.”

The FBI identified six  “tech-savvy” juveniles as people of interest in the latest threats, adding that they appeared to have racist motivations. The FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces are continuing to investigate the most recent threats as well as eight additional bomb threats that date back to early January. 

“This investigation is of the highest priority for the Bureau and involves more than 20 FBI field offices across the country,” the agency said in a press release. “These threats are being investigated as racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism and hate crimes.”

While the immediate threat has passed, students say they still worry about violence fueled by racism.

“The fear struck at first but then there was general anger and disappointment,” Nina Giddens, a junior at Xavier studying public health and international affairs, told the PBS NewsHour. “You get really really frustrated when you are trying to get an education and you’re trying to do better for this world and this country, and people are trying so hard to stop you from doing that.”

Giddens received an alert email in all caps at 5:24 a.m. on Feb. 1 warning of a “BOMB THREAT ON CAMPUS.” The New Orleans school immediately went into lockdown. No explosive devices were found there or at any of the schools targeted. 

A campus police car patrols Xavier University following several bomb threats at the HBCU.

Since the bomb threats, Xavier University of Louisiana is reviewing security protocols and increasing security at the open campus HBCU in New Orleans. Photo by Madison Grant / Xavier Herald

This is the second bomb threat received at Xavier since the Spring 2022 semester began. The Jan. 4 threat at Xavier was ruled by campus officials as not being credible but prompted school officials to implement additional safety resources throughout the New Orleans campus, according to emails sent to Xavier students. 

Mya Bledsoe, a sophomore studying public health, nearly slept through the alert that came via email from the university emergency alert system in the middle of the night. Bledsoe was alerted by her mother, who got the same notification via email.

“I wouldn’t have known if it wasn’t for her. It was scary because I’m sure a lot of people were sleeping and didn’t get the alert,” Bledsoe told the NewsHour. “As HBCU students, we’re trying to become scientists, doctors, and lawyers to better our lives. We’re here for a purpose; not just for academics but to make sure as Black people we are moving forward. We shouldn’t live in fear. It is just unfortunate that to this day, we are still being targeted as a people.”

Still, the bomb threats have brought an unexpected uneasiness as she and more than 3,000 students returned to class at Xavier. 

Dr. Reynold Verret, Xavier’s president, said this week the school has been on “high alert” since the first threat and he was “deeply saddened” that HBCUs were under attack as February began. The school was forced to move quickly to pivot to remote learning. The administration said students sheltered in place in dorms while authorities swept other buildings that were specifically targeted.

“We have been here 100 years plus,” Verret said at a news conference. “We have been facing adversity and we have survived through the adversity and we will continue to do so. Life is not without challenges and those challenges will be met because we are one nation. It is not just an issue for our schools or this locality, it is a national issue.” 

Sharlene Sinegal-DeCuir, an associate professor of history at Xavier, says the administration “responded really well,” noting the school “acted fast and did everything right; everything that they could do. They informed everyone right away when they heard about the bomb threat and made sure students and staff were secure. They followed all of the proper protocols.”

But some students at Xavier are calling for expanded protocols and increased student input and urged that the school not rely solely on email alerts, especially if the threats and attacks at HBCUs continue.

“If they could sound the alarm or make an announcement for us to wake up; then we would have been better alerted,” Bledsoe said. “I feel like we haven’t had enough protocols to know what to do in that situation. Now that this has happened and this isn’t the first time; they should give us more procedures to know what to do when a real bomb is found.” 

Xavier Student Government Association President Emmanuel Ukot plans to meet with school administrators about improved safety protocols. “I believe that the university should communicate the internal protocols that they follow and what is expected of the students when threats like this arise — not just when a threat has been made,” Ukot told the NewsHour.

School leaders say the Xavier administration takes the threat from “external bad actors” seriously. During the bomb threats, three types of alerts were sent – app notifications, emails, and texts – while resident assistants knocked on doors to alert students, Vice President of Administration Patrice Bell told NewsHour. Since the threats, Xavier has hired additional security to safeguard the open campus, she added.

“We are doing another review of our protocols because of the environment we’re living in and we are working with topical experts to look at where we can do additional enhancements,” Bell said. We believe that we need to enhance our communication systems to students so that in that moment of a threat we have tremendous amounts of redundancy. We do not think three is enough.”

“There is lots to be done in making students feel safe,” freshman communications major Madison Grant told the NewsHour. “Not just at my school but my friends at other HBCUs say the same thing. If a bomb does go off, then what are the next steps? It’s horrible that we have to think about this. I don’t know what we would do. We need guidance that goes beyond shelter-in-place.”

Bell agreed. She said, “a listening session with students is in order and we’ve already started offering increased emotional and mental health support for students, faculty, and staff.” Additionally, a campus safety awareness campaign was launched after the initial threat in January. 

A heavy police presence at Howard University in Washington, D.C. following bomb threats at the HBCU.

At Howard University, there was an increased presence on campus. Since January, Howard has received three bomb threats. No explosive devices were detected. Photo by Jasper Smith / The Hilltop

Bomb threats and attacks against Black institutions are deeply rooted in U.S. history. Delaware State University president Tony Allen called the threat to his campus “a clear effort to confuse, intimidate, and bully our students, staff, and faculty.”

“The impetus for such a threat cannot be ascribed to anything other than the most primitive form of racism, a form which is neither new nor unique in this country,” he wrote in a statement. “Here is what I say to these bullies; these fear-mongers of our day: ‘We shall not be moved.’”

Sinegal-DeCuir says students were resilient and refused to let the threats disrupt their education.

“After the incident, we talked in class. Students didn’t miss a beat. They came back to learning and that is a testament not only to the student but to the spirit of African-American people in general. We always are able to just triumph and come back,” Sinegal-DeCuir added.  

A caller who threatened to blow up Bethune-Cookman University, a historically Black university in Daytona Beach, Florida, described an elaborate plot on Jan. 31 involving seven bombs hidden in duffel bags and backpacks around the school’s perimeter, according to police. The Associated Press reported that the caller said the bombs containing C-4 explosives would be detonated on campus that day, Daytona Beach Police Chief Jakari Young said at a news conference.

Some students are voicing frustration too; questioning why there was not a greater sense of urgency when the threats started in January. 

At Spellman College in Atlanta, students sheltered in place.

A student at Spellman College in Atlanta relaxes on a bench after the all-clear was given following a campus sweep for possible explosive devices. Spelman was one of nearly 20 HBCU’s targeted by bomb threats in early February. Photo by Dasia Hooks / Student

“One thing that disappointed me is the lack of national attention that it got initially. We received a bomb threat earlier in January, but a lot of us feel like if these were Ivy league schools or those with larger endowments they would have a lot more coverage and a sense of urgency,” Giddens said. 

Madison Grant is also a reporter for the Xavier Herald, the campus newspaper. She sheltered in place but reported as the school was being swept for bombs. She says it is a “very real threat that has faded too quickly” from the headlines. 

“It’s sad. It is as if our stories don’t matter,” Grant said. “When you look there is not a lot being said about it. This is a hate crime. Honestly, those threats should be considered terrorism. It feels too normalized when our education can be disrupted and then we’re just supposed to go about our lives.”

Grant also questioned what she calls “biased coverage.” 

“I do believe if this was occurring at PWIs [predominantly white institutions] across the country there would be more coverage. I think people would actually feel the fear of it more. When you are threatening Black bodies and Black spaces, I don’t think that it gets the same attention that it should. There are probably a lot of people that don’t even know this is happening, ” Grant said.

For students like Giddens, the idea that Black self-improvement is a threat and motivates people to respond with violence is eye-opening. She says it is why “we need more Black leaders.”

“It’s so scary because it’s like history keeps repeating itself. It’s hard to see that as a race, we keep getting targeted even today,” Giddens said. “ The fact that they are so threatened motivates me to keep going. I’ve encouraged my friends to not be afraid.”