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‘An Assault on Many Fronts’

Students, parents, employees and administrators at historically Black colleges and universities are wrestling with the mental health challenges caused by repeated bomb threats.

April 8, 2022
 
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
The FBI has investigated at least 59 threats of violence received by historically Black colleges and universities, including Howard University, since the beginning of the year.

When Tanya Washington Hicks heard there was a bomb threat at Morgan State University, she felt like her heart was being “squeezed” in her chest. She called her son, a freshman at Morgan State, in a panic on that February day but tried to tamp down the fear in her voice to keep him calm. He told her he was on lockdown in his dorm room.

Similar threats spread at historically Black colleges and universities across the country in February and March. Washington Hicks and other mothers with children at HBCUs started a text chain and shared the latest news as campus leaders and media outlets reported threat after threat.

Washington Hicks, a professor of law at Georgia State University, said the incidents raised unexpected concerns about her son going to college and never factored into the advice she’d given him when he enrolled at Morgan State, “like make sure that you’re getting enough sleep, make sure that you’re safe, make sure that you wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic.”

But “make sure you are protected from violent, terroristic threats … that wasn’t on my list of instructions for my son,” she said.

Things changed after the bomb threats became a regular occurrence at HBCUs and a handful of other colleges that disproportionately serve students of color.

There have been at least 59 related incidents investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation since January, according to the FBI, and they have caused campus shutdowns, police sweeps of academic buildings and heightened security on campuses. HBCU students, parents and leaders say the threats have also taken a mental toll, creating anxiety and stress among students, employees and their families and a need for expanded mental health services.

The threats came as HBCUs experienced a surge of philanthropic largess from donors like MacKenzie Scott and renewed attention and support from lawmakers in the wake of the racial justice movement prompted by the police killings of George Floyd and other Black people and the pandemic that disproportionately affected Black communities.

HBCUs are “a place where we’re supposed to be able to come feel safe and have a sense of belonging and develop into these leaders,” said Kennedy Reid, a third-year student at North Carolina A&T State University, which received a threat in early February. “It’s very hard to also hear that there are people who don’t want you in those spaces and they’re coming to infiltrate and impact a space that does want you.”

Brianna Fewell, a freshman at Spelman College in Atlanta, said after the third threat to her campus, in February, she was afraid to stay in her dorm room. But her family lives six hours away, so she remained on campus while some of her friends left and attended classes virtually for the rest of the week. Now she and her friends check their phones whenever the college’s alert system sends out a notice. She said some of her classmates get nervous when they see unattended bags on campus, and she feels uneasy when she sees people who aren’t Black on campus, a reaction that disturbs her.

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HBCUs train Black students to be leaders in a diverse world, “so, the fact that we are hesitant to see other people who don’t look like us on campus, because we fear for our lives, is kind of doing the opposite effect,” she said.

No explosives have been found at the HBCUs targeted, but Washington Hicks said the prospect of bombings feels very real when placed in a historical context; bombings and burnings of Black institutions were once widespread in the South—and some occurred in the relatively recent past. Racially motivated attacks on Black churches still continue to be a recurring problem even today.

“I’ve studied this history,” Washington Hicks said. “This isn’t an anomaly. This is part of a pattern and practice of racial and terroristic threats that have included children, in what most people have considered to be safe spaces, like churches and synagogues and schools and homes. When you know that it can happen because it’s happened before, it just adds a whole new level of terror.”

Kylie Burke, president of Howard University’s Student Association, recently told members of Congress about how students, faculty and staff members were wrestling with stress and paranoia in the aftermath of multiple bomb threats to her campus. Howard has experienced at least four threats since January.

University leaders had to address “the weight of the anxiety felt on campus after students were repeatedly woken up with safety alerts, sometimes as late as 2 or 3 a.m. in the morning,” she said during a March 17 hearing held by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform about federal agencies’ responses to the bomb threats. 

Michelle Asha Cooper, acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education​, noted during the hearing that HBCUs can apply for grants to address students' mental health needs through the Project School Emergency Response to Violence program or Project SERV. The federal program supports educational institutions that have experienced violent or traumatic incidents disruptive to learning. The funding can go toward hiring crisis support counselors, among other resources to help campuses recover.  

"While thankfully no devices have been found, siginificant trauma and disruption has been done by threatening the safety and security of these campuses," Cooper said at the hearing. 

Cynthia Evers, vice president for student affairs at Howard, said the university extended the campus counseling center’s hours in response to the threats, stationed counselors in some of the residence halls and assigned more counselors to its crisis hotline. The university also hosted regular briefings for students with campus leaders and a Healing at Howard program that brings in an outside counselor to facilitate a group conversation about issues on campus.

“It was so important to be face-to-face with the students, because they were here and they were just feeling uneasy, and we just felt like they needed to see us and hear from us,” Evers said.

Reid, the North Carolina A&T student, said her classmates had already seen a deluge of social media posts about threats at other institutions by the time their campus was threatened.

“Everybody was, it’s sad to say, not very surprised,” she said. “I think that in the current time that we’re living in, it’s less and less surprising that these things happen against Black people, whether that be at HBCUs or in the political space or due to police brutality or things like that.”

Her university sent out emails encouraging students to see campus counselors, and some professors dismissed classes so students could take mental health days, but Reid didn’t feel like she needed the support services. She just accepted it as a string of racist incidents she expects to experience in her lifetime.

“I think everybody was pretty much not shocked by what was going on,” she said. “For me personally, this is one of the most minuscule events that I’ve experienced already just for being a Black person. The fact that there was a bomb threat—it’s just another one of those things where people don’t like you because you’re Black.”

Vivian Barnette, who directs the counseling center at North Carolina A&T, said it’s hard to tease out how many students are reaching out for counseling because of the pandemic and how many are disturbed by the threats, but she suspects the two issues have caused the surge of students coming to the center this year. She said generally 10 percent of the student body comes to the center for workshops, group sessions and individual counseling, and that percentage has jumped to 12 percent or higher. Students who seek out counseling at the center also usually attend between three and five weekly sessions, but now they’re choosing to attend up to eight sessions.

Between a pandemic that’s disproportionately affected Black communities and the uncertainty caused by bomb threats, some students are feeling like “this is just way too much,” she said.

Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund, a membership organization representing private HBCUs, said he also worries about the mental health of HBCU administrators. They’ve had to balance taking the threats seriously and keeping students safe with not overreacting and causing widespread panic on campuses. He added that HBCUs are historically underresourced, and many don’t have the funds to beef up security and expand mental health services at the level they want.

Murray said some HBCU leaders have also told him they regularly receive other kinds of threats, including calls laden with racial slurs and promising violence if their institutions serve as polling sites or encourage students to vote. He believes the recent bomb threats are only a fraction of the threats these institutions receive, and many go unreported.

“This is an assault on many fronts coming from the shadows,” Murray said.

Some HBCU leaders are concerned that the threats may affect enrollment, but Murray believes most students will want to stay at their institutions. He said this isn’t the first time Black students have felt under attack and turned to HBCUs for a sense of belonging and as a bastion for activism. A 2021 study from the Stanford University Center for Education Policy Analysis suggested that increases in hate crimes actually drive students to HBCUs, and a number of HBCUs experienced enrollment surges after the 2016 election of Donald Trump and during the national protests that followed the murder of George Floyd.

“Those students are seeing the world change before their eyes,” he said. “These are the students that watched George Floyd die. These are the students that marched in the name of Breonna Taylor. I don’t believe this one event … will be anything that will negatively affect enrollment because of larger societal issues that did not just start at the beginning of this pandemic but have definitely been lit with a match of urgency in the last two years.”

Tonya Fewell, Brianna’s mother, said as “nerve-racking” as the bomb threats have been, “for me, an HBCU is the only choice for what I would want for my child because of my belief in what it does.”

Washington Hicks agreed that threats aren’t a deterrent for her sending her son to Morgan State. Her great-grandfather, mother, father, brother and a number of her cousins have all attended HBCUs. She said she’d rather see security bolstered at her son’s campus and concerted federal response to the threats than move him to a predominantly white institution where there’s no guarantee he’d be any safer.

“As a Black mother of a Black son, there are so many spaces that are unsafe for my child,” she said. “It just becomes another space in a long list of spaces where we know our children are not safe in this world because history tells us that much. My thought, and the thought of other mothers and fathers whose children are at HBCUs, was not ‘Well, he would be safer if I moved him to a different university.’”

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