Student Deaths Shake Up College Campuses
By Linda Meggett Brown
Acelebration to honor the memory of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday, Jan. 15, turned tragic at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., when a freshman student was gunned down on campus.
Philip Lee Jr., 20, of Newark, N.J., was shot in the back of the head, reportedly at close range, as he walked a young lady to her dorm room on campus after leaving the college chapel (on campus) where the program was held that evening, a school spokesperson says. The campus was closed to observe the King holiday but students were returning for class the next day.
Lee’s shooting was the second within a month at a historically Black college in South Carolina.
Forty-five miles away at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, an 18-year-old freshman was found dead in his dorm, Bethea Hall, in December. Corey Baker of Norcross, Ga., was shot in the chest with a small caliber gun.
The State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) continues to investigate his death, but no arrests have been made and no suspects are in custody, officials say.
Administrators at S.C. State, which is South Carolina’s only Black, land-grant institution have, offered a $5,000 reward for information on Baker’s death.
The university and SLED have released very little information about the shooting investigation.
The university is cooperating with law enforcement to ensure the circumstances surrounding Baker’s death are resolved, says Dr. Leroy Davis, university president.
“S.C. State remains committed to providing a safe and secure environment for the education and development of its students,” Davis says.
The two recent murders have generated a lot of media attention for a couple of reasons: they happened within a month of each other, and both students were African American males. Administrators from the two schools say they also believe the crimes have attracted more attention than usual because they occurred on the campuses of historically Black institutions.
However, when a murder takes place on campus, particularly in or outside of a student dormitory, the entire campus community — students, faculty, staff and administrators — are forced to deal with campus violence firsthand. Administrators must decide whether all available safety precautions are being taken on behalf of students and the rest of the college community, and if not, whether security should be beefed up. In addition, students as well as university employees are forced to think about how they can best ensure their own safety on campus. Crime occurs in places where one least expects it. Still, students and parents retain the false perception that students are safe within the confines of a college or university campus.
According to a U.S. Department of Education report released last month, the criminal homicide rate on campus was 0.07 per 100,000 students in 1999. In comparison, the criminal homicide rate in the United States was 5.7 per 100,000 persons overall and 14.1 per 100,000 for persons ages 17 to 29.
S.C. State students returned after winter break to find tighter security on campus. Bethea Hall was the first of 11 dorms at S.C. State to be equipped with video surveillance, panic bars on exit doors and a card-key entry system. The $200,000 security system, which includes the cost of hiring four new security officers, was installed over the holiday break, Davis says. It came in the wake of Baker’s Dec. 11 shooting death just before holidays.
Administrators were able to shift budgeted money around to pay for new security in Bethea Hall, despite a proposed $3.8 million state budget cut this year, Davis says. Similar security systems will be installed in other dorms as money becomes available. Approximately 2,000 students are housed in campus dormitories. Guns or firearms of any kind are prohibited on campus.
“A lot of [the changes] had to do with making sure we didn’t leave anything to chance when it comes to having a safe and secure environment,” Davis says. “We don’t want to give the impression we don’t have a safe campus.”
Despite the recent shooting incidents, Benedict and S.C. State remain open campuses.
A Bittersweet Arrest
While S.C. State works to beef up security in its dormitories, the Benedict College community in Columbia is experiencing bittersweet emotions as three of the four suspects have been charged in connection with Philip Lee’s death.
The arrest is bittersweet because Lee is gone, says Benedict spokeswoman Kymm Hunter.
Two of the four suspects are brothers Lucius Staten, 24 and Dushun Staten, 21, both of New York. The third suspect is the Statens’ cousin, Shakeem Wilson, 19, of Georgia. At press time police were still looking for a fourth suspect in the shooting.
Some have linked the shooting to gangs, Hunter says.
“But the police are not saying it’s a gang shooting. It’s hurtful to the family. Until we know exactly what it was, we’re not making the connection. Whether they were Bloods (a gang), we don’t know. If it is, we’ll say. We have nothing to hide,” Hunter told Black Issues.
“What I think is very important is that this student was coming from church when this occurred. He was a Christian, a gentleman and a peacemaker,” Hunter adds.
Some Benedict College students reported that four male nonstudents wearing red hats and shirts confronted Lee, who was 6 feet 4 inches and 280 pounds, and his friends.
“We don’t know if they knew each other. The last thing Lee reportedly said was, ‘I don’t want to fight you, man,’ and he was walking away,” Hunter says. “We need some healing time. Students are telling me ‘we’re sick of the media.’ They feel they are being victimized. Everywhere they go on or off campus there is a television camera in their face.”
Within a few days of the Lee shooting, a University of South Carolina student was shot in the Martin Luther King Park in the Five Points area near Benedict College. Columbia’s Police Chief Charles Austin has beefed up patrols and created a task force that includes officers from his department, Benedict and the State Law Enforcement Division.
Months before the shooting at Benedict, the school had hired a private security firm to increase patrols to assist the campus police department, Hunter says. However, the hiring of the security company is unrelated to recent crimes on or near the campus.
The Big Picture
The Benedict College incident was one of seven shootings that occurred in Columbia within a seven-week period. “There was a University of South Carolina student shot and nothing is heard about that student,” Hunter says. “There were two other shootings the same weekend as the Benedict shooting and there isn’t much reporting,” she says. “People look at Black colleges and there is a lot of stereotyping.”
Hunter says most Black institutions across the country must confront crime issues because of where they are located. “Most of our schools are in economically depressed areas (see chart below for factors that affect crime).
“I’m a graduate of Howard University [ in Washington, D.C.], and people got shot and raped. We had to walk in a group to go to
Popeye’s,” Hunter says. “It’s a challenge for many Black schools. The one thing about Benedict is that we’re involved in the community. We’re buying abandoned houses and renovating them for faculty housing. Crime will be on campus. It doesn’t matter if it’s a predominantly White or Black campus,” she says.
Further, Benedict, S.C. State and the USC are not the only schools that have been affected by student deaths recently.
Late last month, 23-year-old Tara Baker, a first-year law student at the University of Georgia-Athens, was murdered at her off-campus home. Firefighters released a report that said Baker sustained multiple injuries and was “incapacitated” when the killer set fire to her bedroom. According to the report, it appeared that someone had turned all four burners of the kitchen stove on high and locked the door to Baker’s bedroom before the firefighters arrived. The firefighters discovered Baker’s body on her bedroom floor.
A $10,000 reward has been offered by the Office of Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner and Georgia Arson Control for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever set the fire. This was the first murder of a student at UGA in nearly nine years.
Benjamin Varner, 19, was found stabbed to death in his dormitory at Gallaudet University in Washington earlier this month. Another Gallaudet freshman, Eric F. Plunkett, 19, was found beaten to death last September in Cogswell Hall, the same dormitory where Varner’s body was recently discovered. The homicides at Gallaudet, the nation’s premier university for the deaf and the hearing impaired, affirms that no college is immune from the ravages of crime.
Further north, the Dartmouth University community was shocked in late January to learn that two of its most popular professors, a married couple, Susanne and Half Zantop, known for opening their home to the university community, were found dead in their secluded off-campus home in Hanover, N.H. Police say the deaths are considered a double homicide. The tragedy has reportedly shaken the close-knit Dartmouth community.
Nationally, 11 murders were reported on campuses in 1999, representing a 54 percent decline in criminal homicides from 1998. According to the education report, the decline was greatest at public colleges. About 24 murders were reported in 1998 and 18 in 1997, compared to 20 murders seven years ago (see chart about on-campus criminal homicide, pg. 26).
The Lee murder is the first homicide in Benedict College’s 150-year history. Similarly, Baker’s on-campus killing is a first for S.C. State. Two years ago, however, another S.C. State student was shot to death off campus about three months before he was scheduled to graduate and be commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army.
Benedict has established a $10,000 scholarship in Lee’s memory for students from New Jersey. In May, the college will confer a degree on Lee, who was a second semester freshman majoring in criminal justice.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com