A Clark Atlanta University security office tells news crews they have to move to the public sidewalk & off campus property near where shooting reportedly broke out during a party on the steps of the Atlanta University Center early Wednesday morning injuring several students on the first day of classes in Atlanta, GA on August 21st, 2019. (Photo by Phil Skinner / For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
Photo: Phil Skinner/AJC
Photo: Phil Skinner/AJC

On college campuses, shootings fuel fears but remain rare

The shooting at a block party at Atlanta University that injured four young women occurred as students start classes at many Georgia campuses. Such violent crimes raise parent fears and put campuses on high alert.

But they remain rare. The most recent statistics available put the number of shootings on or near college campuses at around 100 for an academic year compared to thousands of reports of burglaries, car thefts and sex assaults.

More typical college crimes are snatch-and-grabs by thieves seeking cellphones, laptops or other valuables. For instance, police arrested a Forsyth County man who used a knife to steal a bicycle from two Georgia Tech students this month. In January, four Tech students were robbed at gunpoint after a late-night doughnut run and forced to drive to an ATM for more cash. Police made an arrest in March.

Once considered sanctuaries from crime, college campuses are now more aware of their vulnerabilities and are legally required to disclose their crime statistics. Colleges in big cities can face additional safety challenges.

“If I had gates I could close and lock, I could make this a more secure community. But we are part of the larger downtown community,” said Georgia State Police Chief Joseph Spillane, who deploys foot patrols, Segways, bicycles and marked golf carts, in addition to patrol cars and motorcycles, for higher campus visibility on and around the downtown campus.

Georgia State University Police Chief Joseph P. Spillane previously worked at the Atlanta Police Department. (HANDOUT PHOTO)

The homeless people around GSU can worry visiting parents, but are not the source of most crimes on campus, said the police chief, who created a six-member outreach team to help homeless people in the area.

The larger threat comes from visitors from other schools or community members coming on campus to hang out with GSU students or to sell illegal drugs or alcohol, he said. Spillane will dispatch GSU officers to large parties off campus, saying he would rather be safe than sorry.

But he says students have to develop their own risk radar.

“A party that starts out with 30 people ends of having 150. We have to teach kids to recognize when it is time to bail out of a situation if it doesn’t feel safe,” he said.

Georgia Tech says parents are key to prodding students to embrace safety recommendations, including downloading Tech’s LiveSafe smartphone app with quick access to the Tech police.

Spillane knows it’s not easy to instill safety awareness.

“Having a daughter in college myself, I know students really don’t take it as seriously as they should,” he said. “That’s why we do a lot outreach to students, at orientations and through the safety classes that we do,” he said.

“If we see a crime trend involving a place where students congregate— whether it’s around Georgia Tech or the AU Center or a club in Atlanta — we do outreach there as well, working with management and other police departments to increase safety.”

08/21/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- An informative sign with a list of restrictions, including guns, is posted outside of the promenade near the Robert W. Woodruff library on the main campus of Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Wednesday, August 21, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

DeKalb parent Ernest Brown has a daughter in graduate school at Georgia Tech and a nephew at GSU. He’s advised both to be aware of their surroundings.

“I especially emphasize that they should not be distracted by their cellphones when walking outside,” he said.

“For my daughter, I advise her to request an escort from campus security if she needs to move on campus at night and there isn’t a colleague — especially a male one — to walk with her,” he said. “I say a prayer each day that they and all others will be safe.”

The 21st annual “Indicators of School Crime and Safety” report — a federal trend tracker of crime at schools and colleges — showed about 28,400 criminal incidents reported on campuses in 2016, representing a 3% increase from 2015, when 27,600 were reported.

Among on-campus crimes were 12,000 burglaries, which constituted 42% of all crimes. Other frequently reported crimes were forcible sex offenses (8,900 incidents, or 31% of crimes) and motor vehicle thefts (3,500 incidents, or 12% of crimes). In addition, 2,200 aggravated assaults and 1,100 robberies were reported.

Solid data on campus gun violence is limited. But those studies that do exist show shootings are rare, although rising. A recent study found shooting incidents on or near colleges doubled from 2011-12 to 2015-16, when 101 incidents occurred.

Still, campuses are often safer than the surrounding communities because of the increased safety investment Georgia State and other schools have made. “If you pulled up a map and plotted all the crime at GSU and within 500 yards,” said Spillane, “you would see an island of very little crime and a sea of criminal activity around us.”

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