Editor's note: Crime on Atlanta’s intown college campuses spurred debate in the General Assembly, which passed a bill allowing students to carry concealed guns on campus, which was vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal. The pro-gun lobby and those who read the Second Amendment in its broadest sense, who are legion in Georgia, may be back for a second round.
Original story: The news reports told the story. On and around college campuses in the heart of metro Atlanta, criminals brazenly targeted students in crimes ranging from vandalism to shootings.
The crimes at Georgia State University got more publicity than most because of the dangers, locations and political debates about opening campuses to people carrying concealed weapons. In March, a student was involved in a double shooting outside a dorm during a suspected drug deal. Another shooting occurred days before outside a popular restaurant among campus buildings, and several armed robberies in the campus library earlier this year still have the school on alert.
The incidents and others at the in-town Georgia Tech and the historically black institutions in the Atlanta University Center concern parents and leave them wondering whether school officials are up to the task of keeping students safe, despite recent efforts by the universities and Atlanta police to beef up security.
“There should be no way someone can enter these (university) buildings without the proper identification,” said Shakeela Rattansingh, who has one daughter at Georgia State, another at Georgia Tech.
Not just parents are worried. School, business and city leaders all have a stake in burnishing downtown’s image as a safe place for parents to send their children so that the universities, which have become integral components of the city’s economic development, maintain their positive momentum.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sifted the numbers of crimes on campus to see how valid fears are for in-town campuses and compared those to all public Georgia campuses as well as urban campuses in several other cities.
Students on in-town Atlanta campuses reported being victims of violent crimes — including armed robbery and assault — at a rate 50 percent higher than that of students at all Georgia campuses. They reported being victimized at a rate higher than those of students at schools in Houston and Boston within a comparable distance of those cities’ downtowns. Meanwhile, in-town Atlanta students reported armed robberies, rapes, aggravated assaults and murders at a rate significantly lower than students in Washington.
And here is a fact parents need to keep in mind. Even though the campus robberies and the occasional shooting on in-town campuses have attracted headlines, students are safer from violent crime than the average Georgian.
Rattansingh, after hearing about the shootings and robberies at Atlanta schools, expressed concern that the campuses are so open. Georgia State’s building are mixed among those of downtown. Rattansingh doesn’t want to pull her daughters out of the universities, but wants more safeguards. The daughter at Georgia State, Tamara, will be moving home to Chamblee and commuting to class next year.
“I think a part of it is because of campus safety,” said Tamara, 20. “My mother is always asking me now where I am, am I walking with a group; am I by myself … She’s concerned.”
Devonta Williams’ parents began interrogating him immediately after hearing about the library robberies and the other recent crimes. “The incidents were shocking,” Williams, 19, said, “but I was aware that the possibility was always there because of (Georgia State’s) open campus.”
The concerns have risen at the same time that Georgia State is trying to implement an impressive expansion that proponents say could change downtown. It won a bid to buy most of the Turner Field area. It and a development partner plan to turn the 67 acres into a mixed-use development that would include campus facilities as well as commercial tax-generating businesses and housing in a long-failing neighborhood.
Despite those major moves, the recent conversation is about the crimes.
The conversation got amplified because of political debate during the winter over a law to allow students to carry concealed weapons on campus. Georgia State’s name was thrown around as state lawmakers, gun rights advocates and some students used the incidents to justify campus carry legislation. A day after the “campus carry” bill was filed in the state House, two armed robberies took place in Georgia State’s library, fueling the fire and headlines about the legislation, and making it seem that the university was a dangerous place to be.
Atlanta’s other in-town campuses have had similar crimes.
Several students were robbed at Georgia Tech last fall, including one student who was pistol whipped and robbed after leaving his home close to campus. Other Tech students were robbed and tied up inside their apartment a couple of blocks south of campus, and another student was robbed at gunpoint inside the school’s college of business.
After a series of on-campus crimes against students and faculty, a Georgia Tech parent wrote in to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year lamenting the school’s problems and its response. “I can’t continue to risk my son’s personal safety just to save a few bucks on in-state tuition,” wrote the parent of a third-year Tech student.
Not long after the Georgia State incidents, the campus carry law passed. Gov. Nathan Deal, who had expressed some reservations — could veto it.
Georgia State President Mark Becker said, “Crime is no more an issue at Georgia State than it is at any other college and university.”
Which is true for his university, but other in-town colleges and universities skew higher.
An analysis of FBI data shows that for 2014, the most recent year available, the average rate of violent crimes is 5.5 per 10,000 for students on Georgia’s public colleges and universities. Georgia State reported about 3.7 crimes per 10,000.
Georgia Tech reported 8.7, and Emory University reported about 12.2 per 10,000 students.
Among the historic black colleges and universities, which are situated near some of Atlanta’s poorer neighborhoods, Morehouse College reported the highest rate. Its students reported about 28.4 violent crimes for every 10,000 students, Spelman reported 18.7, Clark Atlanta reported 20.
As a benchmark, the FBI statistics show that the rate of violent crime in this state is 37.7 per 10,000 people. So students are much safer on campus than the average Georgian.
Average the in-town Atlanta campus rates, and they come in at 8.6 per 10,000 students, which is higher than in-town universities in Houston and Boston. FBI Crime reports put them at about 5 per 10,000 students.
Washington’s schools were worst, reporting an average of 17 per 10,000 students.
The FBI warns about making campus comparisons because of the various factors — such as the makeup of the surrounding communities, ratio of male to female students and accessibility of a campus to outside visitors — that may affect the data.
Carlton Mullis took over as acting police chief of Georgia State in March.
“Many times the presence of so many quality-of-life issues, such as homelessness and panhandling, in this area lead to a misperception that downtown is unsafe or dangerous, when the reality is that you are less likely to be the victim of a violent crime here than in any other part of the city,” he said.
Georgia State has launched a series of safety initiatives recently. Becker demoted the school’s police chief and began searching for a replacement. The university has also changed the way it sends campus alerts, and integrated its campus video cameras with the Atlanta Police Department’s. There are plans to roll out a new crime-prevention program with Crime Stoppers that would let students anonymously report information. A community engagement program is set for the fall. Georgia State also plans to double the school’s 70-member police force over the next two years.
“I feel like (campus police and officials) are doing the best they can do. We’re on a campus in the middle of a major city, crime’s going to happen,” sophomore Trei Chamberlain, 19, said. In addition to any safety initiatives, students have to be more aware of their surroundings, he said. “I’m not blaming students, but you have to put yourselves in better situations.”
Clark Atlanta University’s President Ronald Johnson said university police have caught female criminals as young as 13 who robbed students of their phones and electronics on his campus. It’s a sign of a larger problem.
“Until we can address the issues of poverty in the city, of people dropping out of school in the city, we’re going to have this issue across the city,” Johnson said.
Late last year, students attending Atlanta University Center schools, including Clark Atlanta, Morehouse and Spelman colleges, sent their administrations a list of wide-ranging demands. Key among them was a demand that their campuses be safer. Three armed robberies occurred near Clark Atlanta’s campus over one weekend in November. That same month, a shootout involving five men near Morehouse’s campus left one person dead.
Atlanta’s attraction as a destination location for the music, sports and film industries attracts people working in those areas, but it also attracts the criminal element looking to prey on people, said Thomas Trawick, Clark Atlanta’s police chief.
Naivete of some students living for the first time in an urban area is also an issue, he said.
“Sometimes they just don’t think Atlanta can be a very dangerous place, and so may find themselves exposed to trouble, by not knowing their surroundings, being oblivious and doing things like exposing high-value items (such as cell phones),” Trawick said.
Like Georgia State, the other in-town colleges have all launched campus safety initiatives. Still, experts say, policing is only one part of solving the problem.There must be wholesale changes to surrounding neighborhoods and deep community investment that will change neighborhoods.
But even then, most campuses don’t have walls or fences around them, especially urban campuses, said Bill Taylor, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.
“You walk out the door of your classroom and you’re on a city street. So anything that’s happening in the city can move on to the campus.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.