By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
There was a time when HBCU students arrived on campus in late August, unpacked their gear, left the dorm to explore nearby restaurants, churches, and nightclubs, which often rolled out the red carpet at the start of school.
But escalating gun violence is changing this time-honored tradition at numerous HBCUs including Virginia State, which recently announced plans to upgrade its security measures after two Virginia State students were shot and killed off campus within a nine-day span.
Virginia State students Matthew Gibbs, age 19, and Adrionna West, age 20, were recently killed off campus. Gibbs died from a gunshot wound and was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead in late August. The second slain Virginia State student, West, was shot a few days later off campus and found dead inside of a car in early September.
“Being angry is not enough,” Virginia State President Makola M. Abdullah said in a recent statement on the school’s website, announcing security upgrades that include VSU Police meeting daily with Petersburg Police “to share intelligence and inform our VSU community of any activity/crimes that may impact our students.”
Abdullah said campus and local police officers will continue to patrol the Petersburg apartment complexes “where our students have been assigned. Police from VSU, Colonial Heights, Chesterfield, and a private security company will continue to monitor area hotels where our students have been assigned. VSU Police will be called to the scene of any incident in Petersburg that involves any VSU student. VSU Police will be alerted to any large gathering of VSU students in Petersburg (including parties).”
Much has changed, in other words. The total number of HBCUs, for example, dropped within the past two decades. While some reports say six HBCUs closed in the past two decades, a recent HBCU Graduates report lists at least three dozen HBCUs that have closed in the past two decades. However, a January 2023 report from the National Center for Education said the number of students in this country enrolling in HBCUs surged and increased by 57 percent last year in 2022.
This after a $50 million funding shortfall from the U.S. Department of Education in 2020 caused HBCU student enrollment to experience a significant decline.
Harsher changes include the societal impact of rising gun violence in America on HBCU students who have been shot or wounded off campus. Recently, Norfolk State University student Jahari George, age 20, was shot and killed on Sept. 2 after parking near campus at Gate House Road.
TeAnna George, Jahari’s mother, told WVEC TV in a Sept. 13 interview, “He was not out partying. He was not hanging out in the streets. While, it was considered off-campus, Jahari was parked outside his dorm.”
George said her son parked on a side street near his dorm because of a parking issue on campus.
Drive about 613 miles from Norfolk to Jacksonville and notice how a deadly shooting never happened on-or-off campus at Jacksonville’s Edward Waters University in late August, due to the fact that an on-campus security officer engaged with “an unidentified male in the vicinity of Centennial Library on campus” and told the young male to leave after he failed to identify himself, according to WTLV-TV. The unidentified young White male was spotted putting on tactical gear. Students reported him and a campus police officer approached as he sped off in his vehicle having never identified himself.
“The shooter then returned to his car without incident and left the campus; the encounter was reported to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office by campus security,” WTLV-TV noted. “Security officials placed the university on lockdown for several hours, restricting access to anyone leaving or coming on the campus. An all clear was given to students at 4:35 p.m. via the Campus Emergency Notification System, ‘Tiger Alert.’”
Edward Waters University is located only three quarters of a mile from the Dollar General store where 21-year-old Ryan Christopher Palmeter shot and killed three Blacks after he was forced to leave the nearby HBCU.
Although the White gunman killed three Blacks and turned the gun on himself during his racially motivated shooting at a nearby Jacksonville Dollar General, the recent incident did not result in the shooting death of a single HBCU student.
Many HBCUs have upgraded security in recent years, especially as threats to HBCUs have increased nationwide. Last year alone, the FBI investigated bomb threats that were made against more than 20 HBCUs in states including Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Now, many schools require IDs to cross through campus gates and enter buildings. Following last year’s bomb threats, some universities have increased the presence of law enforcement officers, social workers and counselors to address safety and health concerns.
HBCUs like Virginia State, for example, issued its recent statement after it had already hired private security in residence halls, installed monitored cameras and license plate readers with video cameras at campus entryways and exits.
Abdullah said in his recent statement, “Security personnel and VSU police officers will maintain a strong presence on campus and at off-campus VSU-assigned housing. We strongly urge students to refrain from attending large off-campus gatherings/parties. VSU does NOT sanction these. We strongly urge you to attend on-campus social gatherings only.”
The point is Virginia State is one of several HBCUs that are currently taking “clear and decisive steps” to increase safe spaces.
“While we are grateful that Petersburg Police moved swiftly to make arrests in these cases, we know that prevention is critical. This week, my administration and I met with Petersburg City Officials to discuss our unified safety approach,” Abdullah said. “We remain dedicated to providing our Trojan Family a safe and secure environment,”
The United Negro College Fund issued a statement after the Jacksonville shootings that said HBCUs need increased funding to thwart gun violence on and off campus.
“Racially motivated loss of life must end,” said Dr. Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO, UNCF, in a recent statement.
“While we are thankful the students and employees of Edward Waters University were spared this weekend, we still condemn the attempt … Our HBCUs must be better supported. We implore the Congress to extend specific U.S. Department of Homeland Security funding, meant for nonprofits, to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), because that is how we will fortify and protect the campuses we love.”
Lomax added, “All year long, we have asked Congress to protect HBCUs, and now is the time to pass the Homeland Security appropriations bill with language that directs the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) to provide $100 million for HBCUs (annually) via the non-profit grants’ security program. This program must administer the funds directly to HBCUs, not by the state governments.
“This will help HBCUs to be protected against threats by increasing security, developing plans on how to respond beyond simply calling the police, heighten the use of technology to monitor campus entry points, and make our environments the safe haven for learning they should be for the sake – and mental health and security – of our students.”