A Shooting in a St. Louis Suburb Reverberates on Campuses Near and Far

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Police officers stand watch in Ferguson, Mo., a St. Louis suburb that has been rocked by protests, sometimes violent, since the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teenager last weekend. Colleges are planning responses to the incident as they welcome students back for the fall semester.
August 15, 2014

The weekend shooting death of an unarmed black teen by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., had colleges in the St. Louis area scrambling to beef up security this week as racially-charged clashes between protesters and the police created an uneasy prelude to a new academic year.

Area colleges sent out messages to reassure students, parents, and faculty and staff that their campuses were safe after several nights in which heavily-armed police officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters angered by the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Teach-ins were being planned at several campuses that will be welcoming students next week.

St. Louis Community College, which has a campus in Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where the shooting took place, will offer a town hall-style meeting there next week with the U.S. Department of Justice to discuss the shooting and its aftermath. On Thursday, the campus will hold small-group discussion sessions with students, who start classes on Monday.

Meanwhile, controversy over the incident is reverberating nationwide, fueled by a social-media campaign influenced by students at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington.

About 250 Howard students posed with their hands in the air for a photo that went viral on Twitter. The caption: "Don’t Shoot." The police have said Mr. Brown was shot during a physical altercation with an officer, while a witness has said he was holding up his hands to show he was unarmed and that the officer continued firing as the teen tried to run away. The shooting happened just days before Mr. Brown was to start at Vatterott College, a for-profit institution with campuses in Missouri and other Midwestern states.

The Howard students, who were already on campus preparing for a freshman move-in meeting, were also responding to news that a Howard alumna, Mya White, had been shot in the head while documenting the protests in Ferguson. Details about that incident were murky, with the police saying she had been hit by a drive-by shooter. Her injuries were described as not life-threatening.

Howard students held a prayer vigil Thursday evening, one of dozens planned around the country, to support the slain teen and others who have been killed by police. "We want to send the message that enough is enough," said Ikenna Ikeotuonye, a senior who serves as vice president of the Howard University Student Association. Mr. Ikeotuonye took the photo of the students with their hands up­ "in the most innocent pose a civilian can have."

Seeking Solutions

The turmoil happened at a time when St. Louis-area campuses were generally quiet, but administrators sought to quell any anxiety parents and students might have as they were packing up and preparing to arrive.

St. Louis Community College put out a statement Thursday assuring people that the college police force and local authorities had procedures in place to ensure everyone’s safety. Faculty members have been meeting on the college’s four campuses this week to prepare for the semester, and security was especially tight on the Florissant Valley campus, in Ferguson.

At Washington University in St. Louis, the chancellor, Mark S. Wrighton, sent out a campuswide email Tuesday saying the incident called attention to challenges facing the region that he hoped everyone would do their part to help solve. Those challenges include "racism, health disparities, and uneven access to quality education and economic opportunity." Administrators there were discussing ways to organize discussion when students return next week.

Thomas F. George, the chancellor of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said in a message to the campus on Wednesday that the university would work to facilitate "positive change" in the community. "Your continuing work to ensure that UMSL is a safe place which promotes the very best in education, civility and diversity will strengthen the region and help in the healing process," he wrote.

Meanwhile, across the country, college students have joined others in calling attention to the way young black men are often portrayed in the media. Using the Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown they are posting side-by-side photos of themselves looking respectable in caps and gowns or Army uniforms, alongside ones in which they are holding a beer or looking tough. The social-media campaign was prompted by published photos that showed the shooting victim wearing a basketball jersey and flashing what could be interpreted as either gang gesture or a peace sign.