Howard students to return amid fears of crime, finances

Correction: An earlier version of this article provided a misleading comparison of sexual assaults reported at Howard University with those at two other D.C. universities, in part because of the differences in the way the schools compile these statistics. Combining all instances of reported sexual assault on an off campus from 2009 to 2011, George Washington University had 56; Georgetown University, 26; and Howard, 20.

August 10, 2013

With thousands of students arriving this month for a new academic year at Howard University, the school is still roiling from reports of two summertime crimes that have raised fresh questions about safety on the Northwest Washington campus.

Police reported two violent attacks at Howard last month: the robbery and fatal shooting of a rising senior on July 4, and the rape of a campus visitor inside a classroom building on July 22.

The publicity surrounding both reports, along with a separate crime spike last fall, have prompted a soul-searching on how to shake long-standing perceptions and realities about crime and safety on a campus in the heart of a big city.

The discussion began when the campus was already shaken by a financial crisis at Howard, first revealed in June, that led to layoffs and sparked a debate about the school’s future.

“Having a safe environment is essential,” Howard’s president, Sidney A. Ribeau, said in a recent interview. “If people are worried about crime, they cannot learn.”

Ribeau and other officials have sought to boost campus security in time for the fall semester. He said that freshmen, who will begin moving into dorms Saturday, will be counseled about their environment soon after their arrival. Students will also be greeted by guards posted at dormitories, and they will be offered 24-hour shuttle service to off-campus apartments and other buildings in the historic Shaw neighborhood.

In addition, undercover D.C. police officers will patrol the campus in increasing numbers.

“The officers are being told to be more observant, that their job is even harder now,” said Cedric Scott, an 11-year veteran of the Howard University police force and vice president of the Metropolitan Campus Police Officers Union. “We don’t want to be in a position where something happens and we aren’t where we’re supposed to be.”

Howard leads most other schools in the District in both on- and off-campus street robberies, which often target students carrying book bags, computers and smartphones.

But in other ways, Howard compares favorably with the other urban campuses of Washington. The university reported 20 sexual assaults on and off campus between 2009 and 2011, the latest years available.

Georgetown University reported 26 sexual assaults on and off campus over those three years. George Washington University reported 56.

Howard officials also point to statistics that show a dramatic drop in campus crime over a five-year period. There were 47 robberies in 2008 and 15 last year. There were 29 in 2010 and five in 2011.

They also say the recent financial turmoil has not affected public safety. Howard University Police Chief Leroy K. James said the budget issues that forced the elimination of 73 university staff members spared his 211-member force.

James said 15 officers were recently hired and an additional five are about to join. Officials said the public-safety budget has risen from $10 million to $11 million, not including several million to improve technology, such as key-card access to buildings and surveillance cameras.

Officials are also contemplating more long-term efforts to improve campus safety, including revitalizing the more well-worn portions of the Georgia Avenue corridor, which skirts Howard’s open, 108-acre campus.

The thoroughfare hardly offers a grand entrance to campus. Walking up from the Shaw Metro station to the university means passing a collection of gritty
carry-outs, an array of “cold beer” signs and storefronts selling throwaway cellphones.

Ribeau described the contrast between Georgia Avenue and the campus itself as emblematic of “the divide between the haves and the have-nots in America.”

He said he hopes that Howard can anchor a burst of gentrification, much like those occurring elsewhere in the District, attracting thousands of new residents and clearing away crime. “Ten years from now, there will be a new Georgia Avenue corridor,” he said.

Already, store owners and vendors said they’ve seen marked improvements and called the area safer than in years past. And campus visitors interviewed last week expressed little concern.

Kenya Hall, a 37-year-old from Brooklyn, came with her son, Aaron Trotman, who plans to attend Howard this fall. “I’m not scared,” said Trotman, 17. Hall added, “I’ve seen two police pass by in the last five minutes.”

But Wilhelmina Rochester, who drives a FedEx truck and makes stops throughout campus each day, said students here and elsewhere nearby are typically easy prey. “I’ve seen people get robbed,” said Rochester, 57, adding that she occasionally notices security lights that don’t work.

The latest discussion of safety at Howard was prompted primarily by a random robbery July 4 on Georgia Avenue, which police said led to the shooting death of Omar Adam Sykes, 22. He would have been a senior majoring in business marketing this year. No arrest has been made.

Then came the report of a rape July 22, which the victim said occurred after her attacker followed her off a Metro bus. Police and university officials said privately that surveillance video does not support the woman’s story, but they have not discounted it and have released a photo of a man they want to question.

There was also a crime spike last October, including a carjacking in a campus parking lot, a robbery of a student at gunpoint in front of the stadium, an assault of four students as they walked home from a party and another robbery at gunpoint of a man outside the campus theater.

Then, in November, a 19-year-old student was raped in the Bethune Annex dorm by an intruder police said had been hiding in her bathroom. University officials said they have replaced keycard access with 24-hour security guards at every dorm.

D.C. police charged a man in that rape and another attack in which a woman allegedly was stabbed repeatedly by a man who broke into her apartment in Northeast Washington. Police said the same knife was used in both attacks. The suspect’s trial is pending.

The victim of the on-campus rape, who spoke publicly for the first time since the attack in an e-mail exchange this month, said she has decided to return to Howard this fall despite her misgivings about safety.

“Although the choice was not easy especially considering recent events, I have decided to come back,” she wrote. “It’s a struggle mentally, emotionally and physically to feign normality and return to the school after something such as this.”

But, she said: “The last thing you want taken from you is something you’ve worked for and deserve. I want my education and I refuse to let him or anyone else take that as well.”

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