Aug 19, 2019 Atlanta: Here student fill The Tech Walkway Monday, August 19, 2019 as the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) began its first day of classes for some 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students in fields ranging from engineering, computing, sciences, business, design, and liberal arts. 3,100 first-year students who begin classes at Tech this week are 43% female. The group comes from 77 countries, 47 states, 1,425 high schools (350 within Georgia), and 96 Georgia counties. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Shooting sparks debate about closing access to Ga. college campuses

Clark Atlanta University student Micah Lee arrived for the first day of school Wednesday morning thinking not only about his classes, but also his safety.

Hours earlier, two Clark Atlanta students and two Spelman College students were shot at an outdoor party near the campus, across the street from the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library. Lee, a junior marketing major, had considered going to the party, which drew students from several area colleges — and the suspected shooter.

The Atlanta University Center is located less than a mile from Mercedes-Benz Stadium and many of downtown Atlanta’s most popular tourist attractions and nightclubs. For many students, the proximity is a benefit. Events at the schools can draw large crowds of both students and community members.

But after Tuesday’s shooting, Lee and other students are reconsidering the open atmosphere of their campus.

“That might have to change after this,” said Lee.He suggested Clark Atlanta — a private university of about4,000 students — needs to be a “closed campus,” with limited public access to campus events and limited access to the campus from some city streets around the school.

As campus safety has become more of a national concern, so has the debate at some schools about whether to “close” campuses. Federal statistics show crime on college campuses has increased 6% in the last three years. The nine largest colleges and universities in the Atlanta city limits reported slightly more aggravated assaults, burglaries and robberies in 2017, the most recent year available, than they did in 2014, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review found.

Tuesday’s party, closest to Clark Atlanta’s campus, was organized by promoters who did not receive approval from any of the AUC’s schools.

Sophomore Jasmine Phelps said the shooting was doubtlessly a consequence of Clark’s open campus. “Anyone can get on this campus,” said Phelps, from Seattle. She said she worries about her safety “every day.”

Clark Atlanta increased campus patrols after the shooting, which was technically off-campus, and has ordered officers work 12-hour shifts. Spelman’s president, Mary Schmidt Campbell, said Friday that contractors have been temporarily hired to patrol outside the library.

Three of the four wounded students were released from the hospital and the fourth was recovering, Clark Atlanta’s interim president, Lucille Maugé, said late Thursday. Administrators at both schools have released statements daily since the shootings, but have not granted interviews.

The AUC, like nearly all Georgia colleges, has state-certified officers to patrol its campuses. State lawmakers attempted to address campus crime by creating a law in 2017, after years of debate on the idea, that allows firearms on some portions of public campuses.

Most college campuses, unlike elementary, middle or high schools, were built more than a century ago as vast, welcoming spaces. Mass shootings, though, have heightened fears. 

“(Students) and their parents are much more concerned with safety…That’s a part of their lives now,” said Walter Kimbrough, an Atlanta native who is president of Dillard University in New Orleans.

Dillard, like the Atlanta University Center schools, is a private, historically black university in a residential neighborhood. It has two main gates on its main street, Kimbrough said. One is closed at night.

Kimbrough said many of Atlanta’s largest universities — Emory, Georgia State and Georgia Tech — are “wide open” campuses that would be difficult to close off.

Many schools, including Morehouse and Spelman colleges, have campus police who typically stop vehicles at all entrances. Clark Atlanta has police at its entrance to its classroom buildings, but it’s easier to access most of its dorms, located on nearby city streets. Kimbrough said the challenge for HBCUs closing their campuses is complaints that the schools are separating themselves from their community.

“It’s a balancing act,” Kimbrough said.

Closing campuses would sow ill will in the communities they “anchor,” said Lynn Pasquerella, a former president of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

“The goal is to demonstrate that their success is inextricably linked to the success of the communities they serve,” said Pasquerella, now the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Even closed campuses are vulnerable to random intruders, she said, “I know it’s on the mind of every college campus leader.”

At Georgia Tech, robberies of students have been a problem in recent years; the latest occurring Thursday on a corner leading to campus. Visitors can easily walk through the heart of campus.

First-year student Cody Masterman-Smith said he was reminded during orientation, despite the desire to be chivalrous, not to hold the dorm doors open for anyone, particularly at night. Some seeking access may not be students.

“Be mindful,” Masterman-Smith, 18, from Vidalia, said he’s been told.

Closing a campus like Georgia Tech is a “Band-Aid” solution because students would have more trouble escaping from a shooter, said student Rylee Holland, 18, an outreach director for Students Demand Action, an organization pushing for background checks and other efforts to stem gun violence. The group, she said, is working to educate students who legally carry guns on campus about firearm safety.

AUC student leaders and administrators said discussions about additional security measures will continue.

“These students should be able to come and go as they please and feel safe, but in the world that we live in now, I don’t know if that’s feasible anymore,” said Tiffany Williams, the mother of Spelman freshman Maia Williams-McLaren, 18, of Boston, who was shot in the leg.

Speaking from her daughter’s dorm where the young woman was recuperating, Williams used the word “scary” several times.

“I’ve kept my daughter safe for 18 years,” she said, “and in one week, here we are.”

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Staff writer Christian Boone contributed to this story.