GSU students, city officials decry ongoing violence near campus, offer solutions

A 21-year-old was fatally shot Sunday near a Georgia State University student housing center and RaceTrac gas station on Piedmont Avenue.

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

A 21-year-old was fatally shot Sunday near a Georgia State University student housing center and RaceTrac gas station on Piedmont Avenue.

In the wake of another shooting near Georgia State University’s campus, students, parents and city officials spoke out this week and offered solutions amid growing frustrations over the recurring violence in the downtown Atlanta area.

One day after 21-year-old Javare Shakir-Fulford was fatally shot near a student housing center and RaceTrac gas station on Piedmont Avenue, the face of GSU student government felt the need to speak out. Zayvion Sheppard, the student body president, penned a letter Monday to the community after the latest gunfire left him “heartbroken,” announcing that he will not be running for re-election this year.

He said the majority of students he has spoken with expressed feelings of hopelessness and apathy.

“I am outraged that students here at Georgia State University must endure these traumatic events on a recurring basis,” Sheppard wrote on Instagram. “On the issue of safety, our generation has been conditioned to expect trauma and accept complicity. We have lost faith in our ability to create change and have forgotten the power we hold in our voice. It is time we remember that we are the change we wish to see in this chaotic world, regardless of what others might think.”

While Shakir-Fulford was not a GSU student, a shooting in December 2022 killed 24-year-old student Joshua Igbinijesu. That incident happened at the RaceTrac, which abruptly shut down Monday after the latest shooting due to public safety and financial issues, the company announced.

Rhea Wunsch, a junior public policy major at GSU, said the repeated gunfire has become the new reality for students. Incidents have sometimes happened outside their windows, she said.

“It’s just not OK for us to have to deal with this at such a young age,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday afternoon. “We can invest in our communities, implement gun reform. People are genuinely dying over very solvable issues.”

Sheppard was the first freshman elected as GSU student body president, the same role he held at Newton High School in Covington. Now a sophomore, he has often worked with the administration and spoke out about the need for help from city officials because “the university can only do so much,” he said after another fatal shooting near campus in December.

”We need more help from the city because throwing more police officers at the issue isn’t working,” he said.

Heather Wallace’s daughter attended GSU during the spring and fall semesters last year before transferring to nearby Georgia Tech. The 19-year-old was worried about the violence but felt it was a normal part of the university, her mother said.

But for Wallace, it was nerve-racking.

“You worry about your kids enough as it is, but to know the reality that these are happening day in and day out,” Wallace told the AJC. “It’s just too much. It’s ridiculous. It’s not something that anybody wants to have to worry about.”

A RaceTrac gas station on Piedmont Avenue announced this week that it is closing.

Credit: John Spink

icon to expand image

Credit: John Spink

Wallace has continued to stay abreast of GSU news as a member of a parent Facebook group — even after her daughter, who didn’t want to be named, transferred and is now a sophomore engineering student at Tech.

Crime at GSU didn’t impact her decision to transfer, Wallace said, but while the campuses are separated by less than three miles, she said they feel “worlds apart.”

“There’s been nothing to the level of what’s happening at GSU since she’s been there,” Wallace said. “Of course, you know, cars are broken into or something like that, but it certainly feels much safer. And it is interesting because they are basically the same place.”

GSU student Brian Ramirez said he commutes to campus and has never felt unsafe there. Still, the junior global studies major said he is angry about the violence near the university. The 21-year-old paused for a moment after mentioning he was the same age as Sunday’s shooting victim.

“I think the issue is a lot of people are reacting to, ‘Oh, we need to increase police presence at Georgia State.’ But, that is such a band-aid solution and there is already so much over-policing,” Ramirez said. “Instead, we should be investing in students and in the community and making mental health available.”

Wallace countered that Atlanta police need a greater presence in the area and called on elected officials to ensure that students are safe. After a shooting in April of last year outside Reflection, an off-campus student housing building, Wallace said she was told by GSU police that it was a private business, which “kind of put that responsibility on them like it’s not GSU’s problem.”

“I think a lot of all these groups just need to come together and find a solution,” she added. “It feels like everybody pushes it off on somebody else.”

Atlanta City Councilwoman Keisha Sean Waites said she visited the area this week after the shooting.

Credit: Special to AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Special to AJC

Atlanta City Councilwoman Keisha Sean Waites agreed. On Wednesday night, she went to the area near the RaceTrac.

“Many of the challenges are happening on private and public space, outside of the campus but impacting that campus,” Waites said. “I think that we have got to figure out a way to work together.”

Waites said she reached out to Atlanta police leadership this week to coordinate a meeting between them, GSU President M. Brian Blake and RaceTrac officials. She said she was “devastated” by the gas station’s abrupt closure and was worried about how the departure might impact other businesses in the area.

“It is my hope that we can get them the resources that they need to rethink and reconsider,” Waites said.

In October, four people were shot in the area, including two students who were injured and a 19-year-old woman, De’Asia Hart, who died. On Thursday, attorneys for Hart’s family announced a lawsuit against the RaceTrac corporation, the owners of the building and the managers of the The Mix student housing complex. They did not say what amount the family would seek in damages.

At the time of Hart’s killing, Blake said the university would work with Atlanta police to find a way to make the campus more secure. They eventually added more office monitoring and cameras, reoriented building entrances and provided staff training, Blake said.

Sometimes the gunfire near campus has been prompted by fighting. Police said that was the case Sunday and in December, when 20-year-old Ryan Kernizan was shot to death and another person was injured just south of the gas station on Piedmont Avenue between John Wesley Dobbs and Auburn avenues.

In his letter this week, Sheppard, who is listed as a political science and government major on his LinkedIn page, offered his own solutions, calling on city officials to be “smarter on crime” and invest more into the downtown area. He also demanded change and the usage of “community-centered” and “not reactionary and militarized” policing.

An officer gathers crime scene tape after one person died and another was injured Dec. 15 near Georgia State University’s campus.

Credit: John Spink

icon to expand image

Credit: John Spink

An officer was added this year to monitor the RaceTrac because of the uptick in violence, officials said. After the latest shooting, Blake again met with police to come up with a solution. He said they would assess the incident and make “more impactful changes.”

Sheppard said he will continue to represent students for the duration of his term, which concludes March 21.

“I have always believed that the presidency is a position and not a personality,” he added. “My dedication to serving the needs of the community will endure, fueled by the belief that together, we will create a better tomorrow.”