As centers of research and learning, universities and colleges have always wanted to have open campuses, but after its third shooting incident in three years, Morgan State University took the unusual step this week of deciding to wall off the world and put a fence around its perimeter.
Students, faculty, visitors and the public will all have to go through gates to get into the campus after showing identification. “We’re doing this not to keep out our neighbors and community, we’re doing it to keep out the bad actors,” David Wilson, Morgan’s president, said at a town hall.
Morgan isn’t the only campus reevaluating security measures. A day after the shooting there that injured five people during homecoming weekend, American University in Washington, D.C., said it had already begun looking at other security options, including possibly arming police. St. Mary’s College began using armed officers Monday under an already announced security enhancement plan, but said in a letter to students and faculty that “the need to be able to respond to more threats is never more real” after the Morgan shooting.
While shootings on campuses are still rather rare, they garner attention and shake the sense of safety. An incident at one campus can reverberate around the region. “Those ripples have the potential to tsunami,” said Branville G. Bard Jr., Johns Hopkins University’s vice president of public safety and chief of police. “They tear at the very fabric of feelings of safety.” His department sees an increase in calls and questions from the college community after shootings at other campuses.
In response, universities and colleges have increasingly turned to police departments, surveillance cameras, and expanded access to mental health in an attempt to make their campuses more secure, but not take away a sense of community.
“You want to create the right kind of environment where people are safe,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
“They don’t want it to be a closed society. It is a tough balancing act.”
Four of the five victims at Morgan were students who have since been released from the hospital. Days later, two teenagers with non-life-threatening injuries were shot on Bowie State University’s campus at the end of homecoming festivities. Neither victim was a Bowie student.
For every 100,000 students enrolled in a Maryland college and university, about three have been injured or killed in a shooting on campus since 2014, according to a Baltimore Banner analysis of data from the Gun Violence Archive. That rate of shootings is about average for the nation.
Shootings on HBCU campuses across the nation tend to be concentrated during homecoming season, and typically involve a smaller number of students. October is the month with the most people injured or killed on HBCU campuses nationally, the analysis showed.
Bowie President Aminta Breaux said the incident left her campus community traumatized. “We have never had such an incident for homecoming following such a joyous occasion to have this happen. It was extremely disturbing, upsetting and traumatizing to the campus, because this is not what any of us are accustomed to.”
She said the first step is determining short-term measures to make sure students feel safe, such as keeping the additional lighting that was set up for homecoming festivities.
The Bowie administration may add new security measures, including a fence or wall similar to Morgan’s and technology like facial recognition. Breaux said no decisions will be made until after the community voices its ideas and concerns. Security already in place on campus includes a mix of armed and unarmed police and security officers. A new safety measure Breaux enacted at the start of the school year requires all Bowie State community members —students, faculty, staff — to wear name badges around their necks.
The name badges are a result of bomb threats made to numerous HBCUs including Bowie State at the start of Black History Month in 2022, and again less than a month later. A shelter-in-place motion was issued for almost six hours the day of the initial threat.
When it comes to safety on an open campus, the obstacles can be difficult to grapple with because of how layered that concept can be, Breaux said.
“There’s a challenge for us as a public university with public access, being able to strike the right balance where our campus does not have the feeling of being in lockdown each and every day, but at the same time, providing the safety and the security that our faculty, staff and students want to feel when they come onto the campus for learning and to just have basic operations,” Breaux said.
Before homecoming, Breaux said the campus upgraded cameras, added lighting, and brought in more police officers, state troopers and even SWAT team officers. But the shooting still happened.
On other campuses, violence has included mass shootings carried out by students. In August, police say a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shot a professor. In 2022, three people were killed and two injured in a mass shooting at the University of Virginia. And, in one of the worst mass shootings on a college campus, 32 people died and 17 others were injured in 2007 at Virginia Tech.
Maryland law does not allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon on a college campus. “We have to acknowledge that this isn’t a uniquely university problem. It’s a problem for Maryland. We live in a country that has very lax gun laws,” Webster said.
Safety, Bard said, is one of the reasons Hopkins is adding a police force. The Hopkins campus has layers of protections, including a large network of surveillance cameras that mean most of the campus is covered; lighting; prominent phones that connect to security; bus shuttles; escorts; and ride shares. He said the campus is working to eliminate blind areas where someone could attack without being seen.
“This is an open campus,” Bard said, and the university wants people to feel safe and welcome, but they also want people to know that if they intend to harm someone “you are likely to be caught on camera, you are likely to be identified and that you will be charged.”
Hopkins also has a 24-hour behavioral health crisis team that has been used extensively since it began, Bard said. With a phone call, a licensed clinician will be available to help an individual experiencing a mental health crisis.
In the wake of a shooting during an unsanctioned event on campus in September 2021, Towson University increased patrols and visibility of its Office of Public Safety on campus, overhauled its emergency alerts system so that all members of their community received them without having to opt-in, and secured the campus parking garages so that only those with permits have access to park on campus, Vice President of Communications Sean Welsh said in a statement.
For students, there’s a growing sense that they have to always be on guard.
Any time Towson University student Trevin Walker goes to a campus event, he and his friends pick a meetup location to find each other in case they lose cell service, or worse, get split up due to a shooting.
The latter is exactly what happened when Walker attended Bowie State’s homecoming Saturday night.
A sea of people started running in Walker’s direction that night. He said he heard screams of people asking why everyone was running while he saw others getting trampled.
“We just saw people running, so it’s like, ‘Do you want to find out why people are running, or do you just want to run for no reason?’” said Walker, a communications studies major. “I would rather run for no reason and never find out than not run and wish I ran.”
In 2021, Walker was at Towson when there was a shooting. He said he’s no longer as carefree walking around campus.
“I gotta go back to paying more attention and really thinking about where I’m going to be at a certain time,” he said. “Just in case.”
Walker said although he’s more careful, he thinks Towson officials do a good job of securing events. He isn’t sure of ways the university can make students feel safer, because an increased security presence could make some people uncomfortable while others may want to see more officers patrolling — which is exactly the question many universities are grappling with.
Hopkins found when announcing plans for a private armed police force that stronger security measures can also bring criticism. The university was protested over concerns about overpolicing, racial profiling or police brutality that some thought could come along with the department. In draft policies released last month, Hopkins said complaints about police would be investigated by a public safety accountability unit that would operate independently of public safety and police operations.
“If you really want to be safe, it’s either don’t go [to university events] or go and just hope and pray that you follow your instincts or that people are having a good day,” Walker said.
He said if he could choose anything to make him feel safer at events, would be to have metal detectors and officers checking bags, or a clear bag policy for every event. But even that would dampen homecoming events and take away from the excitement, he said.
Jerri Howland, St. Mary’s vice president for student affairs, said the school’s Office of Public Safety is sending their unarmed officers for training at the Special Police Officer Academy at Montgomery College.
Along with having armed and unarmed officers on campus, the new security model called for body cameras on the officers, an increased surveillance system, and a new director of public safety was hired, Howland said.
Bronté Burleigh-Jones, the vice president of American University, emailed a letter to students and faculty about how to better prioritize safety after the Morgan shooting.
“We offer our support to the Morgan State community,” Burleigh-Jones said in the letter. “It reminds us that our work to protect the AU community is of the highest importance.”
The letter outlined the numerous safety protocols the university had put in place, such as video cameras at every building entrance and the ability to lock the campus remotely in the case of a threat.
Currently, campus police are armed with “less-than-lethal chemical and impact weapons and trained in de-escalation techniques.” These weapons could be tear gas, pepper spray or something similar, but the letter does not specify.
Burleigh-Jones emphasized that no decision has been made on whether to arm campus officers with lethal-force weapons. But one thing seemed certain: “This is a challenging topic with potential safety opportunities and understandable community concerns.”