String of Shootings at Black Colleges

No college is immune from gun violence, but historically black colleges and universities may face unique challenges.

November 4, 2015

Miles College. North Carolina A&T State University. North Carolina Central University. Tennessee State University. Texas Southern University. Winston-Salem State University.

All are historically black colleges or universities, and shootings have occurred on or near all of the campuses in the last month. All but the incident at North Carolina Central and one of two shootings at or near Tennessee State had at least one fatality. Texas Southern and Miles also saw multiple shootings this year.

The Winston-Salem incident is most recent. One 19-year-old student died and another still unidentified student was wounded in a shooting that occurred Sunday after 1 a.m. on the North Carolina campus. Police revealed Monday they had made an arrest, but remained tight-lipped about further details.

Not all of these incidents involved students, however, and not all were fatal. In mid-October, for example, gunshots broke out at an off-campus house party near Tennessee State University, in Nashville. Three people were wounded, all of them current or recent college students (though not all at Tennessee State), and no one died. Another shooting, near North Carolina A&T, took place off campus and involved no students at all, though it happened at a party “related” to homecoming, the police told WFMY.

Mostly, however, these shootings involved at least one student and took place on or very near campus.

“From my research, it seems like these shootings are between people who know each other and involve a combination of students and those in the neighborhoods surrounding these HBCUs,” Marybeth Gasman, director of University of Pennsylvania's Center for Minority Serving Institutions, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

“It’s important to keep in mind that these types of shootings happen on many campuses across the country,” she said. “Most campuses are not safe enough. They are open; many are near or in unsafe neighborhoods, regardless of their HBCU status.”

Some HBCUs may have some particular vulnerabilities. For example, Gasman said, “HBCUs are typically very family oriented and often people don’t question visitors on campus -- instead they are welcomed. They might need to be more vigilant in this way.”

Curtis Johnson, director of campus safety at Arkansas Baptist College and president of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Law Enforcement Executives and Administrators, said historically black institutions face two other critical disadvantages: resources and location.

“Most HBCUs around the country are located in predominantly urban areas that have unusually high levels of crime,” he said. But even more significant than that are the institutions’ resource and staffing levels. “Those are the two things that impact this the most.”

The restructuring in 2011 of the federal Parent PLUS loan program squeezed HBCUs that were already hurting for money, Johnson said, to the point where “it’s a wonder that some of them are still standing.” And campus police departments took the hit. “You’ve got to make cuts somehow,” he said, and campus police and security centers don’t generate revenue.

Of historically black colleges that have seen this type of violence recently, only one was able to send representatives to Johnson's organization's annual training conference this year, and less than half of all HBCUs attended.

Training, emergency preparedness and robust staffing numbers are all critical for campus security, Johnson said, and all are difficult to achieve without adequate funding. But, he said, Arkansas Baptist College, where Johnson works, has an advantage. It's in Arkansas and it's private, which means it can opt out of campus-carry laws that allow people to bring concealed firearms onto college campuses.

A provision in Arkansas's campus-carry law allows any educational institution, including public universities, to opt out, and Arkansas Baptist, a private college, would be exempt in any state. “There's no place for guns on campus,” Johnson said. Rather, campuses should operate like saloons in old western movies, he said, where everyone is required to turn in their revolvers before getting in.

Generally, HBCUs face the same security challenges many other colleges face, and the solutions are much the same, Gasman said. “They need to reach out to community leaders, community centers, churches, etc., to begin conversations around gun violence, gun safety and better community relations. These types of conversations had to take place at Yale, Penn, Chicago and a variety of other institutions as well,” she said. “HBCUs have a long history of having good relationships with the surrounding community, but continual maintenance of these relationships is needed.”

Tennessee State, which saw two student-involved shootings in October, drew sharp criticism from a local politician for, among other things, failing to build exactly those community relationships.

Jerry Maynard, a former councilman in Nashville, charged that the college had declined to build a partnership with the city government that would have allowed campus police officers to patrol around the local community, according to The Tennessean.

Maynard himself also drew criticism after dubbing the college “thug state university” in a radio interview as he called for a culture change at Tennessee State. He walked that statement back, but maintained that the college needed to “clean house” in light of the late-October shooting, apparently over a dice game on campus, that left one person dead and two students wounded.

“A picture is being painted that there is a crime-ridden community [at Tennessee State] and students feel unsafe. That’s just not true,” said Kelli Sharpe, a university spokeswoman. “These are random acts of violence …. If you had police on every inch of campus, this would still happen.”

Still, the college is working to improve security on campus. A 10-point “safety enhancement plan” instituted shortly after the shootings includes new initiatives, like increased campus patrols, and several pre-existing ones such as a campus safety app and tip hotline. The college will also strictly enforce a pre-existing policy requiring all students to wear their IDs at all times, Sharpe said. She also pushed back against the idea that the college lacks a relationship with the nearby community.

“We have a great relationship with the community,” Sharpe said -- a relationship that does, in fact, include a partnership with the Metro Nashville Police Department.

And, Sharpe made a point of emphasizing, violence like this “is a challenge that not just HBCUs but campuses across the country face.”


Back to Top