Campus safety efforts ramp up after deadly gunfire near Clark Atlanta

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Credit: Vanessa McCray

A coordinated campus alert system, a unified police force. Speed bumps, more streetlights.

Officials are pursuing those safety measures and others to better protect students around the Atlanta University Center after a Clark Atlanta University sophomore was fatally shot near campus a few weeks ago. The incident renewed long-running security concerns in a neighborhood where students have faced gun violence multiple times in recent years.

“Students should feel safe. Parents should feel that their child is safe,” said Michael Hodge, executive director of the AUC Consortium, the group of historically Black private colleges that includes Clark Atlanta, Morehouse and Spelman colleges clustered on Atlanta’s Westside.

Atlanta police arrested a 25-year-old man on felony murder and other charges in connection with the Feb. 28 death of Jatonne Sterling, 20. Authorities stressed the shooting was not random and that Sterling knew the suspect, who is not a student.

But the gunfire that broke out in a parking lot behind a Catholic campus ministry alarmed students and parents. Just days later, Clark Atlanta locked down its dorms for about two hours after shots were fired near a residence hall. No injuries were reported.

Two online petitions, with more than 1,400 signatures combined, demand safety upgrades.

“Most of the kids want to remain,” said Tara Lattimer-Wilson, whose daughter is a first-year student at Clark Atlanta. “There’s a lot of positives about their experience. But losing a classmate, that is major. You start rethinking: Should I be here or not?”

Credit: Photo courtesy of Ernest Radcliffe

Credit: Photo courtesy of Ernest Radcliffe

When students returned from spring break last week , several university police vehicles were parked in prominent spots around campus. Hodge said enhanced patrols will continue.

The school did not respond to requests for comment. The president assured students in a letter that Clark Atlanta is taking steps to improve safety and emergency processes.

The AUC colleges each have their own police agencies. They also work with Atlanta police, which monitors the surrounding neighborhood that historically has faced high poverty and crime rates. Off-campus problems can spill over and endanger students.

Since the school year started in mid-August, Atlanta police logged 137 calls for reports of gunshots fired within the AUC Neighborhood, which includes the streets around the campuses but not school properties. Police also received more than two dozen calls of a person shot in that area, according to data obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request.

In October, during Clark Atlanta’s homecoming week, a drive-by shooting near the AUC library injured four people, including two Clark Atlanta students and another AUC student. No arrest has been made.

Lattimer-Wilson traveled to Atlanta from her home in Connecticut for the homecoming festivities. She was in her hotel room when she got a call from her daughter.

“For her to tell me, ‘I hear the gunshots’ — I didn’t send her to college for this,” she said.

Older students also remember a 2019 shooting, at a block party just before the school year began, in which two Clark Atlanta and two Spelman students were wounded. Police made arrests in that case.

Several efforts are underway to increase safety.

State Rep. Mesha Mainor, D-Atlanta, sponsored legislation to allow the school police agencies to share officers and cross into each other’s campuses. Officials said the move would provide better coverage and improve communication and emergency responses.

“Hopefully, the united police force can also help with the general safety of the area,” Mainor said.

House Bill 142 passed Wednesday, and Mainor said schools are already starting to make plans.

The AUC plans to launch a coordinated alert system that can send texts, robocalls and emails to students across all colleges, Hodge said.

Currently, each college has its own alert system, and while campus police chiefs communicate with each other, messages don’t go out simultaneously, Hodge said.

“(For) the big things like bomb threats, active shooter, it really is one campus and so those things need to be known immediately,” he said.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Dr. Helene Gayle, Spelman’s president, said the college is quick to notify students but “could be quicker.”

“Some of them didn’t know what was going on and why they were being shuttled out of the library quickly,” she said during a recent meeting with the AJC.

Other safety proposals include adding more neighborhood streetlights and working with the city to install speed bumps to slow motorists.

Some students have called for Clark Atlanta to close off its campus. Hodge said that would be difficult because of its large size and location along major thoroughfares. Blocking it off also could send the wrong signal to the community that the university doesn’t want to be part of the neighborhood, he said.

A better answer, he said, is to close off vehicle traffic on public side streets that only serve the campus and add security checkpoints.

Credit: Rudy Schlosser

Credit: Rudy Schlosser

Jackie Azah, a first-semester senior at Clark Atlanta, said she feels safe when she’s with other students. Still, she refuses to take classes after 4 p.m. to avoid walking in the dark and lets someone know when she’s venturing out.

The mood around campus after Sterling’s death has “been very heavy,” she said.

“It’s really chilling, and it feels really, really close to home, and students are upset,” said Azah, a volunteer with Students Demand Action, an organization dedicated to ending gun violence.

Azah is largely focused on reforming gun laws and addressing the housing, health care and educational issues that contribute to shootings.

“We’ve just grown so accustomed to gun violence,” she said, adding that it’s painful when it happens at an HBCU, where students come to have their identity celebrated.

Lattimer-Wilson wants Clark Atlanta to create a parents’ association that could provide a forum for parents to voice ideas and offer resources.

“These children ... should be able to focus on their schooling,” she said.