The F.B.I. said it was investigating the bomb threats, which disrupted life on more than a dozen campuses, as racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism and hate crimes.
Michael Levenson, Katie Benner and
The F.B.I. has identified six juveniles as persons of interest in a series of bomb threats that targeted historically Black colleges and universities, a law enforcement official said on Wednesday.
The bureau said it was investigating the threats as racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism and hate crimes.
The bureau made the announcement during a week in which at least 17 historically Black colleges and universities received bomb threats, prompting administrators to temporarily cancel in-person classes and lock down buildings.
The F.B.I. said its joint terrorism task forces were leading the investigation, which was “of the highest priority” and involved more than 20 field offices across the country.
“Although at this time no explosive devices have been found at any of the locations, the F.B.I. takes all threats with the utmost seriousness and we are committed to thoroughly and aggressively investigating these threats,” the F.B.I. said in a statement.
Students said they felt fearful, angry and mentally taxed by the threats.
“A lot of us feel like this is political,” said Joyce Dihi, 19, a freshman at Spelman College in Atlanta, which received a threat on Tuesday, the first day of Black History Month.
“There are people out there who don’t like that H.B.C.U.s support the excellence of Black people,” Ms. Dihi said.
“But to threaten us,” she added, “is too much.”
The development that six juveniles had been identified as persons of interest was reported by NBC News earlier on Wednesday.
The authorities have so far not described any of the threats as credible. But school officials at many of the universities took precautions, such as sweeping campus buildings and moving to remote instruction.
On Monday, at least seven H.B.C.U.s, including Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, La., and Delaware State University in Dover, Del., received bomb threats.
At least 10 other historically Black colleges, including Spelman and Howard University in Washington, reported threats on Tuesday.
Howard also received bomb threats on Monday and on Jan. 5, when at least eight H.B.C.U.s received threats, its president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, said.
While Dr. Frederick declined to share details about the threats, he said they “definitely included language that suggested it was motivated by hate.”
One threat this week was made to the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, and the second went directly to the university’s command center, he said. Both were made over the phone.
The threats were particularly insidious considering that it is Black History Month, he said.
“The people who have come before us have experienced this, and given their lives in some circumstances, to give us the opportunity to experience this again, in a different form,” he said. “We need to respect and honor what they have had to traverse. We must stand tall in this moment as well.”
Although Morehouse College, the men’s college that neighbors Spelman, did not receive a threat, students said they were worried because of their proximity to Spelman and because of their friends there.
“Spelman is our sister school,” said Kyle Sloan, 19, a freshman at Morehouse. “This month is supposed to be about glorifying Black excellence, but this disrupts the whole flow. This feels like someone threatening to take that away from us.”
When threats were made on Jan. 5, many campuses were nearly empty because of winter break and the coronavirus pandemic, but dormitories and administrative buildings were still cleared out.
Robert Mueck, the director of public safety at St. John’s College, in Annapolis, Md., said he had noticed an uptick in bomb threats aimed at schools last November.
“My assumption is that social media is just making this much easier to communicate anonymously,” Mr. Mueck said. “Folks can call these in, make these threats and share who they’re going to target online.”
Cleveland University, Yale University, Ohio University and Miami University received bomb threats during the first week of November, Mr. Mueck said.
On Nov. 7, Cornell, Brown and Columbia Universities also received bomb threats.
On Nov. 11, New York University, Hebrew Union College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California received bomb threats.
Not much is known about the prevalence of bomb threats aimed at schools. In 2018, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reported that 529 bomb threats were made to schools, a 33 percent increase from two years earlier.
Bomb threats in general are on the decline.
The F.B.I. reported 818 bomb threats in 2020, a decrease of 25 percent from 2019, and the lowest number in five years.
Tariro Mzezewa and Adam Goldman contributed reporting.