HBCU students testify before Congress over mounting bomb threats

HBCU students testify before Congress over mounting bomb threats

WASHINGTON, D.C. — One by one, student leaders representing several historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the country described to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on Thursday their anguish over the recent racially charged threats their educational institutions had faced, while emphasizing their resolve to move forward.

For Kylie Burke, president of the Howard University Student Association, the resulting anxiety has felt like a “weight” as she and her peers navigate classes and campus life in the nation’s capital.

“Students were repeatedly woken up to safety alerts as late as 2 a.m.,” said Burke, a senior political science major from Hayward, California, “leaving us constantly on edge as it felt the next threat was all but imminent.”

Her testimony, delivered before the chamber’s main investigative body, was part of a hearing to explore ways that lawmakers could help support HBCUs amid a rash of targeted anonymous threats.

On Jan. 31 and again on Feb. 1, at the beginning of Black History Month, 24 HBCUs received threats that bombs were going to explode on their campuses. Since the beginning of the year, at least 36 HBCUs have received 54 such threats. Morehouse College in Atlanta received a bomb threat on Tuesday, prompting students to shelter in place. These threats have been made, officials told the committee, through phone calls, emails, instant messages and online posts.

“Any threat to these historic institutions cannot stand without severe consequences,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., who first called for the hearing in February and subsequently helped to coordinate the proceedings.

“It is incumbent upon this committee to demand answers on these disturbing attacks and reassure students, faculty and staff of the HBCU community that their fundamental right to safety, adequate education and overall well-being is protected.”

There are more than 100 HBCUs in the U.S., according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Many of these schools were established before or shortly after the Civil War. While representing about 3 percent of American colleges and universities, HBCUs enroll approximately 10 percent of all Black students. Alumni include Vice President Kamala Harris, Toni Morrison, Thurgood Marshall, Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson, and many members of Congress.

Founder's Library at Howard University to be renovated (Evelyn Hockstein / The Washington Post via Getty Images file)
Founder's Library at Howard University to be renovated (Evelyn Hockstein / The Washington Post via Getty Images file)

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., chairman of the subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, noted that the “perpetrators behind these acts obviously targeted Black colleges and universities, seeking to disrupt and terrorize” these communities. “No other colleges or universities have been targeted and disrupted in the same fashion as HBCUs,” he said.

During the four-hour hearing, officials from the FBI, Department of Education and Department of Homeland Security all told members they were coordinating with HBCUs and providing guidance and various tools to help the schools keep their students and faculty safe.

The HBCU investigation is its “highest priority,” Ryan T. Young, executive assistant director of the intelligence branch at the FBI, told the committee.

Young confirmed no arrests had been made but provided new details in response to members’ questions but limited specifics because of the ongoing probe. Investigators said they believe a majority of the bomb threats were the responsibility of “one person and a small group. Our concern after that is some may be copycats,” he said. There had been previous reports, which the FBI has not publicly confirmed, that a number of people, including juveniles, could be among the potential persons’ of interest.

The Biden-Harris administration has taken a series of ongoing actions to support HBCUs.

“This intimidation will not stand, and we will not be intimidated,” Harris said Wednesday during a White House event attended by Attorney General Merrick Garland, Deputy Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security John Tien and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

Harris said HBCUs that were significantly affected by the bomb threats would be eligible for short-term grants to restore their strained learning environments. The grants could be used to hire more mental health professionals, enhance campus security and provide specialized training to security staff. The administration is also releasing a resource guide for colleges and universities with detailed information on detecting, preventing and recovering from threats and acts of violence.

Earlier this month, the House and Senate approved resolutions condemning threats of violence against HBCUs and reaffirming support for safety measures. In addition to the Oversight Committee’s hearing, the House Committee on Homeland Security also held a hearing on Thursday about Black institutions having been targeted for threats and violence.

“These threats were hate crimes,” said Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., founder and co-chair of the Congressional Bipartisan HBCU Caucus. “They were acts of terror. As a proud HBCU alumna and professor, I know HBCUs can overcome any challenge, but those challenges shouldn’t include violence. Terrorism and racism have no place on college campuses — or anywhere else.”

In addition to the House resolution, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, chair of the committee, told NBC News that Congress must pass the Ignite HBCU Excellence Act to restore a sense of safety on HBCU campuses. The Ignite HBCU and MSI Excellence Act would allow historically black colleges to apply for grants to improve their campus infrastructure, including the installation of necessary security features.

Michelle Asha Cooper, deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs at the Department of Education, also stressed the importance of supporting HBCU students with mental health resources. There has been an uptick, she said, in young people seeking out their university’s counseling and wellness services amid the trauma.

Indeed, Emmanuel Ukot, president of the Student Government Association at Xavier University in Louisiana, shared how bomb threats had negatively affected his classmates.

Some students “were too nervous and paranoid to attend classes for the remainder of the week,” the Houston senior business management major told the committee.

Still, the students who shared their stories with Congress vowed to press forward.

Devan M. Vilfrard, who attends Florida A&M University and serves as associate chief justice of its Student Supreme Court, testified that his relatives were at the school back in 1999 when there were pipe bombings. The new wave of threats were “unfortunately an experience that has shown its face as if it were a generational tradition.”

However, he is determined to graduate this spring.

HBCUs, he said, have “provided a path toward success in pursuing the American dream for Black Americans.”

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