It’s Time to Ask Uncomfortable Questions About HBCU Campus Violence

The tug-of-war between admissions selectivity and financial crisis has been going on for decades. But in 2015, unfairly or otherwise, HBCUs which have walked this razor-thin line between closing their doors and open enrollment have pried open a new conversation for naysayers about the relevance of HBCUs – campus crime.

HBCUs across several states, varying missions and demographic profiles are emerging as symbols of black crime in black spaces of higher education. And there appears to be a startling correlation in the timing of these incidents and these universities efforts to boost enrollment, to counter free-falling revenue from tuition and public funding.

Schools will never reveal the ties between admissions selectivity and campus crime, although student judicial officials will confidentially tell you that conduct violations and campus crime is heaviest among first and second-year students who enter with conditional admission, and who have done little to upgrade their learning profile while enrolled.

Police will tell you, also confidentially, that they aren’t concerned about a swell of students committing crimes, but rather, non-students who are invited onto campus by students who make poor choices in friendships, who are trying to buy drugs, or worse, are involved in gang-related activity.

They will also tell you that, at any given moment, there are not enough police officers to adequately prevent or respond to crime in progress in a small community of thousands of students; the same students who will conversely tell you that police officers rarely get out of their cars on patrol, harass students for meaningless offenses, and typically aren’t visible in campus areas that are known hotspots for illegal activity.

HBCUs are vulnerable to crime just as any other neighborhood, college campus, office building, or public space. When violence occurs on predominantly white campuses, it’s typically covered in the vein of “one crazy person going berserk and shooting up as many people as possible.” In this narrative, ‘troubled youth with troubling access to weapons’ is allowed due space to exist in the public conscience.

But when the headline becomes “targeted violent attack amongst black people in the one place where they try to convince us that they aren’t a threat to each other or us,” the narrative of ‘young, angry negroes with guns’ isn’t allowed the same right to life in public dialog.

There’s little we can do to alter that disparity, because it isn’t our narrative to change. What we can alter is the perspective on our financial, cultural circumstances, and that means having the legitimate conversation about who we admit onto our campuses, how we monitor our geographic and cultural boundaries, and how we secure resources to make sure that both efforts are running at their highest levels of intent and execution.

If we keep letting in as many students as possible to make as much money as possible, without an investment in screening or engaging students holistically in the first-year experience, we are only setting ourselves up for greater stress on police on the back end. If we don’t appropriate funds to hire more counselors and mental health professionals, and if we don’t constantly promote their services, we are only preparing for more violence by way of assault or suicide.

If we don’t pay for experienced police officers, the ability to prevent crime through community policing is greatly reduced. And if we don’t invest in student activities, the opportunities for a bored student to take out anger or anxiety on themselves or another student through violence increase exponentially.

How many people should die or be hurt, or how many students need to transfer to “safer” schools because we won’t prioritize our spending? Why do we have to play catch-up on campus crime, one of the worst PR issues any school can have, when we can prevent the nightmare by understanding the intimate connectivity of enrollment management, public safety and counseling?

It doesn’t matter if all schools face the threat of violence, just like it doesn’t matter if all lives matter. Right now, black lives matter most because black lives are endangered by systemic, racialized culture boiling over in communities nationwide.

The same is true for black colleges, and for every other fight we face to keep our schools open, they shouldn’t be forced shut because we refuse to see the error of our ways on recognizing the factors which contribute to campus violence.

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