OPINION: Other campus deaths deserve lawmakers’ focus

Students, faculty and family members gather during a candlelight vigil on campus Wednesday evening. The vigil was attended by hundreds. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Students, faculty and family members gather during a candlelight vigil on campus Wednesday evening. The vigil was attended by hundreds. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

On the night before nursing student Laken Riley was horrifically killed last month, a University of Georgia student, a freshman from Atlanta, also died. Like Riley, his life was just getting started and his loss hit the community hard. Both students were remembered at a community vigil in Athens that weekend, where thousands of UGA students grieved together.

But unlike Riley, whose accused killer is an undocumented Venezuelan migrant, the second student died by suicide. So even as Riley’s story has ignited a national political firestorm, along with promises from lawmakers to make sure something like it never happens again, the mental health crisis facing young people all over the country —has gone mostly unaddressed since then.

The same goes for the Georgia State University students who say they are traumatized by frequent violence on and around their campus. On the Sunday after Riley was killed, 21-year-old Javare Shakir-Fulford was fatally shot around noon across the street from a Georgia State dorm, just two blocks from the state Capitol. The student body president was so shaken he announced he would not run for reelection.

Last year, Jatonne Sterling, a member of the Clark Atlanta baseball team, was shot to death near a residence hall. And that was just a few months after a drive-by shooting injured four people, including two Clark students, near the school’s library.

Too many other Georgia college and high school students have also tragically died by suicide and homicide in recent years. What if lawmakers and candidates had promised as much action on the suicides and homicides affecting Georgia campuses as they have on the issue of illegal immigration? All three have taken the lives of Georgia students, but the focus has been on only one.

There have been moments of silence since Riley’s death and public protests over immigration enforcement, an emergency hearing, and quick passage in the state House of legislation mandating local law enforcement actions related to undocumented immigrants, The state Senate is expected to pass a more stringent measure soon.

In Washington Thursday, U.S. House Republicans, who have been trying in vain to get a border security bill through to Biden’s desk, introduced and quickly passed the “Laken Riley Act,” to require federal detention for any immigrant accused of shoplifting, as Riley’s accused killer had been.

As the grief over Riley’s killing has mixed with anger, political opportunity has come along, too. Former President Donald Trump, who never met Riley, held a press conference at the Southern border of Texas and said he’d never forget her. U.S. Rep. Mike Collins invited Riley’s parents to the State of the Union address on Thursday. When they declined, he publicized their decision on social media and blamed President Joe Biden for Riley’s death.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene handed out “Laken Riley” pins on the House floor ahead of Biden’s State of the Union address Thursday and the two had a spontaneous back-and-forth after Greene yelled during the speech, “It’s about Laken Riley!”

It’s all led to something Riley and her family surely would not have wanted — finger pointing, bitter divisions, and furious personal attacks. Local lawmakers say they’re getting threatened by callers incensed by news reports and blaming them for her death. The diverse and eclectic college town of Athens, one lawmaker told me, is getting ripped apart at the seams. It’s no way to honor a young woman whose friends described her as a light in the dark.

State Rep. Marcus Wiedower, R-Watkinsville, has been one of the few in the General Assembly to also acknowledge the student who died by suicide and ask for a moment of silence for both students.

“While these two situations are woven together by grief and a shared community, they’re unique in the shortcomings and failures that they highlight for this body,” he said. “It’s evident there’s work to be done.”

Wiedower told me in an interview this week that members of his family and staff have been students at UGA, and his community has been devastated by previous suicides among young people. It all hits close to home. Along with the immigration measure he voted for, he said House members continue to “carry the torch” of the late House Speaker David Ralston by pushing for mental health funding to help young people in crisis.

“Our focus needs to remain on meeting these kids where they are and finding more and more avenues to reach out to them,” he said.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said she appreciated Wiedower’s comments on the House floor. “The Laken Riley case is so tragic and so horrific,” she said. “But it’s also true that very often my colleagues are aware of suicides among their children’s contemporaries. I don’t believe we’re blind to these issues.”

The state Senate cut out key pieces of funding for mental health services from the proposed state budget last year, she said. But they can pass the mental health funding in this year’s budget that the House approved on Thursday. It includes money for in-school support and peer-to-peer counseling. Other portions of the state’s now years-long mental health overhaul need to be pushed forward as well.

Lawmakers should also look for more ways to keep students at Georgia State and other campuses safe. Addressing pervasive gun violence is a place to start.

Legislation to address Riley’s tragic death is well underway. But another student died at UGA last month, as have other young people around the state. They deserve their leaders’ attention and action, too.