Six months later, there have been no arrests. No suspects have been named, there have been no public statements about what triggered the threats and no clarity given as to whether the incidents were linked.
“I’m beyond frustrated,” said Carmen Walters, president of Tougaloo College in Mississippi, at a gathering of HBCU presidents at Charlie Palmer Steakhouse in D.C. in August. “I’m very angry that no one has been brought to justice, but there’s been no conversation about the investigation at all.”
To the school leaders, it seems as though the incidents that roiled their campuses have been forgotten. They say the threats that triggered lockdowns and evacuations, and shuttered classrooms, placed a financial burden on their institutions that they weren’t expecting as they implemented hardened security measures. They want more money for safety upgrades — and they want to see those responsible brought to justice.
The FBI said no explosive devices were found, but HBCU leaders say not having a public arrest has created an uneasy atmosphere at their schools. The vitriolic calls, they say, took an intense toll on the mental health of students and their families, who were also under duress from the pandemic.
The bomb threats took away their sense of security on a campus “that’s always been a safe haven for them,” said Dwaun Warmack, president of Claflin University in South Carolina. The calls, which are all recorded, he said were full of “hate” and “disgust” for their institutions and the students they serve.
“If you could hear the recording,” he said, “how many times was the word n—-r mentioned in that call? ‘You n—-rs will die today.’ And to have to play that back … It’s still challenging, and again, no one has been brought to justice.”
The FBI said in a statement that the bureau is working with 34 FBI field offices and still “investigating a series of bomb threats targeting community colleges, colleges and universities across the country.”
“Although at this time no explosive devices have been found at any of the locations, the FBI takes all threats seriously,” the FBI said.
The Biden administration has opened up an application process for schools to receive grants to support students’ mental health and campus security. But only one HBCU, Southern University Law Center in Louisiana, has received a grant. The award was announced Monday, almost seven months after the school received the threat.
“The Biden-Harris Administration strongly condemns threats to our nation’s historically Black colleges and universities,” an Education Department spokesperson said in a statement.
The FBI has held a few calls with campus leaders, according to Lodriguez Murray, United Negro College Fund senior vice president of public policy and government affairs. But the FBI has not accepted their March request for a classified briefing for an update on the ongoing investigation. The group pressed the FBI for a briefing again in July.
“In the year 2022, when we see all kinds of other crimes being solved systematically and seriously, the fact that this one has not been solved, which gives the tone and tenor it is not being taken seriously, it’s unfathomable to this community,” said Murray of UNCF, which represents Claflin University, Tougaloo College and other private HBCUs.
Criticisms of the Biden administration’s response
HBCU advocacy groups have been urging Congress and the Education Department since February to shore up funding for the 100-plus institutions to bolster public safety.
The Biden administration took some action in March by allowing HBCUs to apply for emergency grants after the bomb threats. The grants announced by Vice President Kamala Harris, an HBCU graduate, range from $50,000 to $150,000 per school and come from the Project School Emergency Response to Violence fund.
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at a Black History Month celebration event at the White House on Feb. 28, 2022, in Washington, D.C. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
They are intended to help schools recover from a violent or traumatic event, and can be used to enhance campus public safety and mental health support for students.
“We will continue to work closely with our federal partners to make sure HBCU leaders have access to all available federal resources to respond to threats of violence, strengthen campus security and provide students with the safe and nurturing learning environments that have defined HBCUs,” an Education Department spokesperson said.
HBCU leaders said they were grateful for the administration’s support but the process to get aid is cumbersome.
“Why do we have to apply for a grant when you know I had a bomb threat? You know I had all these expenses,” Walters said. “You’re telling me, ‘OK, you need to reinforce your buildings. You need to get a new sound system, get a new alarm system, do all these things’ — and there are no dollars to do that.”
“I think it’s a complete joke,” she said. “I think the grant process was just a way to say, ‘OK, here’s a bone. Stop crying. Stop complaining.’”
Southern University Law Center was awarded a $133,200 grant. The Education Department said five more institutions have applied for Project SERV grants, and they are working with the institutions to provide technical assistance for completing the grant application process.
HBCU leaders also took issue with an assessment from the Education Department’s Federal Student Aid office that they were required to fill out. The Education Department said it uses the form to examine actions taken by the school to keep the campus safe.
The assessment, the college presidents said, was onerous and asked about the Clery Act and campus security systems.
“The most disappointing piece for me was the three-to-five page assessment that they asked for — like we did something to deserve a bomb threat,” Warmack said. “Like it was our fault that we received a bomb threat. So I didn’t fill it out.”
Additionally, a meeting between Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and more than 40 HBCU presidents in January to discuss campus safety and security left some HBCU leaders feeling confused and unheard.
“Although the administration is good on most HBCU matters … The handling of this situation has felt bungled,” Murray said, adding that the joint secretary call that was billed to be about the threats ended up being about what the administration has done to support the schools and the historic nature of the call.
“While we’re grateful for all of that, the institutions and their leaders are frustrated and need more support, especially on the law enforcement side,” Murray said.
The Education Department spokesperson said the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have held briefings “with relevant university leaders and security officials to hear directly from them and to share information, and we have delivered more funding to HBCUs than any other administration — with additional funds on the way.”
After inquiries to the Biden administration about the federal response to the threats, HBCU advocates and Claflin University were asked by the Education Department to send further comment to POLITICO about their relationship with the administration ahead of the story’s publish date, school officials and advocates said.
The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, which represents HBCUs and predominantly Black institutions, sent POLITICO an unsolicited statement saying its “experience working with this Administration has been different than that of some of our colleagues.” They went on to say: “We have found that there is a team at the Department of Education who understands the centrality of HBCUs to American progress.”
Ryan T. Young, FBI executive assistant director of intelligence, told the House Oversight Committee in March that the agency’s investigation has led to “one person and a small group.” No arrests have been made, he told lawmakers, adding that there have been “challenges with attribution” because “some of [the threats] come from encrypted platforms.” The bureau is only investigating bomb threats made since Jan. 31.
Institutions are still being threatened today, Murray said. Since the bomb threats, some campuses have been defaced, and others have received cyber attacks. One institution was threatened after it was in consideration to be a polling place in the upcoming election.
“I’ve heard the serious nature of the threats. I’ve heard the students, faculty, staff, administrators called out by their name, derogatory terminology,” Murray said.
For these colleges, a resolution via an arrest is critical to ensure others who seek to terrorize their institutions are deterred from making similar threats.
When asked if the federal government would have responded differently had the colleges been predominantly white, Tougaloo’s president immediately answered yes, while Claflin’s leader hesitated.
“I just know we wasn’t treated right,” Warmack said of Claflin.
“Look, I went to a white school,” Walters of Tougaloo replied. “I can promise you, baby, it would’ve been different.”
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