Anita Johnson wanted her son, Deon Stephens, out of Chicago.
Gang violence has plagued that city for years, and left it at or near the top of violent crime lists nationally. When he graduated in 2017, she was happy to see him off to Clark Atlanta University.
But the spike in violent crime recently around Clark has her praying as much for his safety at college as she did when he was home.
“I thought with my son being at school, he would be a little more safe,” she said. “It’s alarming each time I read these emails about incidents. I tell him to make sure he’s aware, alert, walking in groups. And I have to trust God.”
Sunday’s attempted carjacking at a gas station less than a half mile from the Atlanta University Center — which includes Clark and Morehouse and Spelman colleges — was the latest in about a half-dozen incidents that saw local and campus police talking about increased surveillance to keep students safe.
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Crime ebbs and flows in different parts of the city. Four months ago a string of carjackings plagued Midtown. Two years ago, it was robberies and a shooting at Georgia State University, another downtown school, and campus crime was part of the debate when the Legislature passed a bill allowing students to carry concealed guns on campus, which was vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal.
Data at that time showed in-town college students are twice as likely to be a victim as students in other parts of Georgia but that overall, even in-town students are typically safe.
Nevertheless, Atlanta police and the universities have engaged in pushes on occasion to make students safer. Universities from Georgia Tech to Spelman College are key to bringing a sense of liveliness to downtown and are an important part of the downtown economy.
Atlanta Police Department Chief Erika Shields said the department is reinstating a campus security task force, composed of representatives from the area schools, and pushing additional patrol units into the area. Additional units were assigned to a targeted area near the AUC after several robberies and carjackings in the past six weeks. That area has seen minimal crime, she said, adding she believes the additional manpower pushed criminal activity south.
“It had an impact, but it’s not the desired impact,” she said. “It is clear our current efforts are not enough.”
Morehouse Police Chief Valerie Dalton said in a statement, “As a result of this trend, we will be launching an aggressive campaign to equip our students, faculty, and staff with safety tips that they can use when they are traveling from Morehouse College to businesses and residential areas in the neighboring community. The Morehouse College Department of Campus Safety will also hire additional officers to increase police presence during our Homecoming activities this week.”
Dalton also said, “We are very appreciative that the City of Atlanta and the APD are focusing new resources and manpower to address crime in Southwest Atlanta. I believe this effort will improve the safety of our students and the neighbors in the surrounding community.”
Shields said the incidents appeared to be crimes of convenience. In some instances, students were leaving the library or studying late for midterms. A Morehouse sophomore had his vehicle taken when he stepped out late one night recently during a study break to get a snack. He planned to drive home to New Orleans a short time later for a family funeral. A good Samaritan stepped in and purchased him a plane ticket home.
Another incident involved a 19-year-old Clark Atlanta student who was shot and paralyzed while driving in southwest Atlanta. Daeja Craddick, a freshman, told police a woman shot her as she drove through the intersection at Lawton Street and Lucile Avenue.
In another, a Lyft driver said robbers took his wallet and car keys after he dropped off a rider at the Ashley Collegetown Apartments on Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard.
Sunday’s attempted carjacking happened in the middle of the day. The Morehouse student was shot as he attempted to protect his car, Morehouse Chief Dalton said. The student is in the hospital.
Johnson said she lost a nephew to violence in 2016, a year before sending her son to Clark Atlanta. Her other son attends school in Ohio.
“With my son in Ohio, I don’t hear anything,” she said. “With Deon, it seems every week now there’s something going on with the students.”
Some students are not convinced anything is being done to keep them safe.
“I’m not sure they know how to keep us safe,” Clark Atlanta senior Kala Dent said Monday. “Just go the extra mile and hire more police officers. Make gates around campus.”
Shields said crime actually is down 1 percent in Atlanta through Sept. 30. In the area around the AUC, robberies are down 39 percent and carjackings are down 33 percent so far this year.
Students said crime in and around the AUC is always a concern. Morehouse senior Yasin Johnson said his mother made him leave his car in Philadelphia when he was coming back for school two years ago. She was worried at the time that something would happen to him, or someone would take the car.
“We’re always making sure we’re safe when we go somewhere,” he said Monday afternoon, headed to class with fellow senior Demetri Detrayon.
The increased police presence comes as more than 100,000 people will descend upon the area for SpelHouse, Morehouse and Spelman’s combined Homecoming festivities. Shields said she is determined to make sure people feel safe this weekend without turning the event into a “police state.”
“The series of crimes committed against these students is just unacceptable,” she said. “Parents and students alike have a reasonable expectation of learning and growing in a safe environment. While the department has critical arrests … it is clear our current efforts are not enough.”