Less than meets the eye

Despite recent assaults, GSU's crime picture is not so bad

Early in the morning April 5, Brad Ryan Goocher was walking home along Centennial Olympic Parkway. The college freshman got within two blocks of his room at the Georgia State University Village, near Georgia Tech, when he was shot in a robbery attempt. His night ended in a bed at Grady Hospital, where he remained April 14 in stable condition.

Goocher wasn't shot on GSU's campus. But his tragedy underscores a challenge the school faces as it identifies itself ever more closely with downtown: Is the city center really a selling point for the school, or is it a hurdle GSU must overcome to lure students, faculty and staff?

GSU officials insist they're meeting the challenges downtown's reputation presents. School President Carl Patton, an urban planner by training, has placed special emphasis on using the campus to enrich downtown and using downtown to enrich campus life. University officials say the school's urban environment has contributed to a leap in enrollment over the last two years.

"While security is very much a concern for [Patton], I don't believe that it has in any way curtailed his plans for integrating the university into downtown," school spokeswoman Deanna Hines says.

Of course, Atlanta's downtown still isn't as much a cultural center as it is a business district that keeps banker's hours. And it doesn't help the school's reputation to learn that, before Goocher was shot, there had been four sexual assaults on university students since April 2002 — two in the Village dorms and two nearby.

At the same time, those incidents don't tell a larger story: According to the U.S. Department of Education, GSU's crime rate isn't so bad compared to other urban schools. In 2001, for example, GSU reported 17 violent crimes, compared with 13 at Georgia Tech and 10 at Emory. That same year, GSU reported 600 property crimes compared to 1,090 at Georgia Tech and 466 at Emory. That's not bad when you consider that GSU has about as many students as Emory and Georgia Tech combined.

Goocher's attack and the four sexual assaults were either in or near the Village dorms, which GSU inherited from the Olympics in 1997. The Village dorms, which are more than a mile from the main campus, present their own security issues.

Unlike the main campus, the Village doesn't have emergency call boxes with flashing blue lights. And there aren't enough guards to provide a constant presence. There are a few surveillance cameras, but they're not actively monitored.

Plus, sneaking in is incredibly easy. Theoretically, the Village grounds can only be accessed by students with electronic keycards. But, if the gate is opened by one student, streams of people can (and do) stroll in with no problem.

GSU Police Maj. Carlton Mullis says the students share responsibility for their own safety. Not only do students allow stragglers to walk in behind them, they often fail to lock their dorm doors, he says. "We can't do everything."

But resident Latoya Tucker argues that there's an essential flaw in Mullis' logic. It would be pretty awkward to stop another pedestrian at the gate if that person was determined to get in behind you, the sophomore says. "If you say they can't come in, they're not going to listen to you. And what are you going to do?"

Tucker insists that security guards are needed at the entrance. "Most of the times they're walking around the hallways making sure we're not doing whatever, when really that's not the issue. It's who's getting in that isn't supposed to."

Another issue is who's lurking outside of the Village. Tucker says aggressive panhandlers accost her when she parks on the street outside the dorm. She covets one of the expensive parking spaces in the Village's garage, but she might not be safer if she could afford one. A lever that lifts up when students flash an electronic card can't keep pedestrians from walking around the gate and into the garage.

The school conducted a safety audit last year to find ways to make the Village safer. Hazel Scott, vice president of student affairs, says some of the major issues already are being addressed. The school will install more cameras, and increase the lighting in garages and on the external perimeter of the Village. Eventually, the garage will get a gate instead of the lever.

Overall, Scott says, most parents don't seem worried. When the school held a meeting on safety specifically for parents only "two sets of parents came, and one set only came because I called them."

GSU officials insist the situation will only get better. Not only is security improving at the Village but development throughout downtown — and especially around Centennial Olympic Park — is making street life more vibrant and safer.

It's important not to get too carried away with incidents like Goocher's shooting, says Daniel Carter of Security on Campus, a national nonprofit founded to call attention to and help prevent campus crime.

The real key is for schools to arm students with the knowledge that they can't be fully protected from crime, Carter says. GSU sends e-mail notifications of crimes, posts fliers and discusses safety at housing meetings. Students also are offered self-defense training.

Carter advocates disclosure of even more information, including releasing the names of students accused of sexual assault, even if the crime isn't substantiated or prosecuted. Once students have the right information, he says, it's up to them to act accordingly.

"The three simplest things students can do is to not get too drunk, not walk alone at night and lock their doors, whether it's their apartment door or dorm room door," Carter says.

Ultimately, the people students need to be most wary of aren't the people who come in from outside, but the people who live in the same building. "Eighty percent of campus crimes," he notes, "are student on student."