Unfairly, Campus Crime Feeds HBCU Irrelevance Narratives

Over the weekend, thousands of students and alumni across the country mourned the death of two Southern University students, whom police now suspect were killed by a former Southern football player outside of an off-campus apartment complex near Louisiana State University. The shooting continues a tragic streak of violence at historically black colleges and universities this academic year; the tragic byproduct of young people with growing access to guns and hyper-vigilant attitudes about personal respect and protection of self-image.

Prayerfully, the 2016–17 school year will see a dramatic drop in the violence we’re seeing around the country involving students at HBCUs. But if it doesn’t, we’ll all have to accept that HBCUs are operating in brand new town-gown cultures, and we’ll have to ask real questions about what these cultures mean for each school, and the collective HBCU brand.

Much of this year’s violence involves former students returning to campus or living nearby the campus, who keep up ties with current students. And the question is not why current students aren’t using better judgment in selecting friends — the question is how students with dramatically different ideas about carrying and using guns managed to meet or maintain relationships on a college campus in the first place.

It’s one thing to say we take chances on students who otherwise may not see college or have a chance to create a better life. But not being able to protect students, or even the prospect of that kind of failure, adds a new layer of stench to the rotting narrative about HBCU relevance and appeal.

It is a narrative that all of us — students, executives, alumni and faculty — carry around and forces us to explain the smell to others whenever a controversy wafts into the culture and makes everyone around us aware that something in our possession, something near and dear to us, is dying.

We can easily explain graduation rates, debt, leadership struggles and lack of alumni engagement, but public safety issues are not something easily excused when their are breakdowns in responsibility.

As applications nationwide increase to record levels, HBCUs will announce record-breaking classes of first-year students this fall. That means that black colleges will have the extraordinary burden of protecting these thousands, along with the thousands of other sophomores, juniors, seniors and graduate students, from the danger of one (former) student who brings a gun on campus. And it’s not just the student who actually fires a gun — it is the student who pistol whips classmates in a dorm.

It is not just students who smoke and sell weed at school, it’s the (former) students who compete with dealers in the community, which incites turf wars within and in proximity to campus.

It is not just the (former) students who get into fights with others on campus, but those who call their boyfriends, relatives or family who come to campus with guns, using a short-term lapse in judgement to bring a long-term solution to a disagreement or perceived disrespect.

Notice the word (former) keeps popping up here, because that the kind of student typically implicated or charged in these cases. HBCUs deserve due credit in suspending or expelling students who gain continuing access to campus due to the lack of resources in admissions screening and public safety. They were admitted, broke rules, and then got put out — only to return and to give the school a bad name with their behavior.

And then we, the schools and alumni on the outside looking in, blame students for letting their friends back on to the campus, whom they typically know are coming with weed, bullets, and the right kind of attitude for if something pops off.

Yes, students are legally and socially expected to put the brand of the school and the community ahead of their friendships and pursuit of a good time. But, they are still kids. They are still 18 to 20 years old, trying to navigate peer pressure and to heed the uneasy guttural feeling usually honed with years of maturity, but which many of us don’t learn to heed until we make one or several life-altering mistakes about relationships, jobs, money, attitudes, or all the above.

They are exactly who were all were at that age, just with the social pressures that come with an expanded digital network of friends and followers and a higher sensitivity against aiding authority when it comes to punitive actions against other young people, and specifically, young black people.

Fortunately, the apparent epidemic of HBCU campus violence hasn’t yet attracted national news trucks to our campuses, but all it will take is the right city and the right tragic story to captivate the nation.

After all, there were plenty of hazing cases at colleges and universities nationwide well before the death of Robert Champion, but none before and none after will likely be covered in the same way the FAMU Hazing case became an international story.

We’ve got to deal with this thing from a lot of angles. As alumni who recruit for and send our kids to HBCUs, as administrators who know they don’t have enough money, time or people to handle the situation properly, and students who are given every message that promoting safety is selling out; this a real problem that seems to be getting worse.

And no HBCU can afford ‘worse,’ when ‘perfection,’ unreasonable as it is, is the only way to prove merit and relevance inside out outside of our communities.